Learn how to identify heartburn symptoms, triggers and causes, and treatment options.
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What causes heartburn? It’s the acid from your stomach irritating your esophagus.
But what causes that? The short answer is: It varies with each person.
Despite the array of heartburn causes, they can be grouped into two simple categories: first, those that relax your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) – which makes it easy for the acid to get out (move up the esophagus) – and then those that make your digestive juices more acidic, meaning you feel the burn more.
This is true for both foods and beverages that cause heartburn, and other triggers related to your lifestyle.
Certain foods and beverages contain ingredients that are known to relax the LES, preventing it from properly tightening. For example, stimulants like the caffeine found in chocolate12, coffee and tea13 relax the LES.
Foods and beverages that relax the LES
Acidic foods19, alcohol20, and stress21 trigger your stomach to produce more acid. Tiredness can increase your perception of heartburn. More acid means more pressure in your stomach increases and the only way for it to go is up in your esophagus, resulting in heartburn. When you drink carbonated beverages, the gases they releases also increases pressure on the LES, forcing it to open.
Being overweight puts external pressure on stomach contents, which in turn put pressure on the LES, forcing it to open22. This creates an easy pathway for acid to reflux. Drinking alcohol and smoking relax your muscles, and this includes the LES23. As we’ve learned, when the LES is relaxed acid can more easily reflux into your esophagus.
Identifying your heartburn causes would be simple if each trigger affected everyone in the same way. Spoiler alert: They don’t.
The key is to play detective and to try keeping record of which out of the heartburn causes above could have triggered the burn.
The specific conditions of your own diet and lifestyle will play a part. Let’s look at three imagined examples of how small and seemingly unimportant parts of your everyday could be affecting your heartburn.
James (56, Journalist)
Like many people, James enjoys trying different restaurants a few times a week after work, especially if he’s going to the movies. He also has a weakness for rich foods (like the chocolate cheesecake at his local coffee shop) and indulges in the occasional cigarette with his morning coffee.
He was surprised to know that once he identified the burning feeling in his chest as heartburn; he could identify being overweight as a culprit along with his favourite indulgences.
Anna (30, Master’s Candidate)
As if final exams aren’t enough to worry about! Anna has learned first-hand that stress can be a heartburn trigger. Even the coffee that keeps her going throughout her master’s degree might be giving her the burn.
Anna looked more into what were likely the reasons why she was experiencing heartburn around her finals. Stress, coffee, greasy foods and alcohol all made the list.
Darcy (40, Project Manager)
Too busy to get heartburn? If only. Darcy is trying to balance a busy job that has her travelling weekly with her life. She doesn’t have the time to let something like heartburn keep her from impressing her boss at client meetings and enjoying time with her family and friends.
Knowing some of the common causes of heartburn, she was able to identify and record what was happening when she felt heartburn in a heartburn diary.
Darcy soon realized that stress,2425, greasy take out foods, and coffee were the causes of her heartburn. Lack of sleep increased her perception of heartburn.
Keeping a ‘heartburn diary’ could be the key to identifying what is causing your heartburn. The different factors can make it hard to isolate unless you’re keeping a record over time. Start by eliminating all known heartburn triggers from your diet and life.
Start adding one at a time back to your daily routine and make note if any seem to trigger your heartburn. Some people might only have one trigger, some might have many.
The good news is once you have worked out what is causing your heartburn there are plenty of things you can do to remedy the situation. From heartburn treatments to diet changes and getting more exercise, you can do a lot to get relief from your symptoms.