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What is heartburn and how can it be prevented?

A man sits at a dinner table after eating. He holds his fist against his upper abdomen and has a painful expression.
Do you sometimes experience a burning feeling in your chest after eating? It could be heartburn.

Ever had a large or spicy meal, only to be hit with a burning pain in your chest soon afterwards? You might feel like having a lie down and waiting it out, but that makes your discomfort even worse.

What you’ve probably experienced is the common condition known as heartburn. And despite its name and the fact that you feel the pain in your chest, you’ll be relieved to know that it actually has nothing to do with the heart.

We’ve looked at why we get heartburn, its common symptoms and triggers, and what you can do to keep heartburn at bay.

Why does heartburn happen?

Heartburn goes by many names – you might also know it as acid reflux or acid indigestion. It is a burning or tingling feeling that occurs when the contents of your stomach rise into your food pipe (the oesophagus). Mild heartburn is quite common, and most healthy people will experience it from time to time.

To understand why we get heartburn, it can help to think about how the oesophagus and stomach work.

There is a ring of muscle where the oesophagus and stomach meet (the lower oesophageal sphincter). It relaxes to allow food into the stomach and tightens to prevent stomach contents from moving back up into the oesophagus.

In the stomach, strong acids help break down food as part of the digestive process. While your stomach is built to withstand this acid, your oesophagus is not.

If the oesophageal sphincter is weak, or relaxes when it shouldn’t, the stomach’s contents can move up into the oesophagus and causes pain, irritation, and discomfort. This backward flow is called reflux, and the burning chest pain is known as heartburn.

Lying down or bending over can make heartburn feel worse, as the acidic stomach contents can travel further up the oesophagus.

What can trigger heartburn?

Heartburn usually happens after eating. Some of the most common triggers include:

  • Large meals
  • Fatty and spicy meals
  • Carbonated drinks like soft drinks
  • Citrus foods and drinks
  • Coffee
  • Chocolate
  • Peppermint
  • Alcohol.

Some people may experience heartburn without any obvious food triggers.

Other factors that can increase your risk of heartburn include:

  • Being above a healthy weight
  • Being pregnant
  • Taking certain medications (always check with your doctor or health care professional)
  • Feeling stressed
  • Smoking.

A large burger with two meat patties, bacon and cheese, with chips and deep-fried snacks on the side.

Preventing and managing heartburn

There are many things you can do to help reduce your experience of heartburn.

The first step is make sure your daily meals are based around a variety of foods from each of the five food groups recommended by the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating This includes vegetables, fruit, wholegrain breads and cereals, lean meats and meat-alternatives, and reduced-fat dairy and non-dairy alternatives. For an idea on how to get balance and variety into your daily meals, check out these sample meal plans for men and women.

Eating smaller, more frequent meals can help prevent heartburn. By not overfilling the stomach, there is less chance of stomach acid rising into your oesophagus. Remember to choose healthy foods and be mindful of how much you eat across the day.

Try to eat your last meal a few hours before bedtime. This gives your stomach enough time to empty and can reduce your experience of reflux when lying down in bed.

Fatty foods take longer to break down in the stomach, which is why these foods often trigger heartburn symptoms. Consider ways to prepare meals that reduce the amount of fat. For example:

  • Use low-fat cooking methods such as steaming, grilling or lightly pan-frying instead of deep- or shallow-frying.
  • Trim the fat off meats and choose leaner cuts.
  • Choose reduced-fat dairy products.

If spicy foods are a trigger for you, use spices in small amounts or consider other ways to flavour meals, such as fresh or dried herbs. Likewise, if other specific foods cause you heartburn, consider ways to adapt your favourite healthy meals to avoid those triggers.

Achieving or maintaining a healthy weight, and stopping smoking if you currently smoke, can also help reduce your experience of heartburn. Head to Get Healthy or Quit HQ if you would like support in your health journey.

Antacids are an over-the-counter medication that can help neutralise stomach acid and assist with reducing symptoms of heartburn. Antacids don’t replace a healthy diet, and you’ll still need to reduce your intake of foods that trigger your heartburn. Speak with your pharmacist or doctor about whether these are right for you, especially if you are pregnant.

When to seek medical advice

Having mild, infrequent heartburn generally isn’t cause for concern. But if you’re experiencing heartburn more than twice a week, or if your symptoms are severe or getting worse, it’s important to speak with your doctor. Frequent heartburn could be a sign of gastro-oesophageal reflux (GORD), a condition that requires prescription medication and monitoring.

If you are experiencing chest pain and aren’t sure if it’s heartburn or a heart attack, seek immediate medical attention by calling triple zero (000).

Last updated: 16 July 2019