Heartburn typically refers to the pain and the burning sensation felt in the chest, just below the breastbone. Contrary to its name, the condition has nothing to do with the human heart. Instead, it is related to the esophagus, which is a long, tube-like structure that connects the mouth to the stomach.
The pain and the burning sensation produced by GERD is not limited to the chest only, as it often radiates to the neck, throat, and the jaw as well. Heartburn is actually a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and is generally accompanied by bloating and an acidic or sour taste in the mouth.
Causes of Heartburn
As mentioned already, the esophagus is a tube-like structure that connects the mouth to the stomach. The food we consume reaches the stomach through the esophagus. Once the food reaches the stomach, its backward flow towards the esophagus is prevented by a muscular structure located at the junction of the esophagus and the stomach.
This structure is known as the lower esophageal sphincter or LES. But occasionally, stomach acid can flow back to the esophagus due to the weakness of the esophageal muscle, an inherent defect in the structure of the LES, or a buildup of excess acid in the stomach. The stomach has a lining or coating that protects it from gastric acid, but such a lining is not present in the esophagus.
So, whenever acid from the stomach enters the esophagus, it causes irritation and inflammation of the lining of the esophagus, which in turn causes heartburn. The main risk factors for this condition is the consumption of highly acidic food, and beverages like caffeine, alcohol, and carbonated beverages. Conditions like obesity and pregnancy can put excess pressure on the stomach, and affect the functions of the LES. Diseases like scleroderma, sarcoidosis, hiatal hernia, as well as the intake of certain medications like aspirin and ibuprofen can increase the risk of acid reflux.
Treatment for Heartburn and Acid Reflux
The conventional medications that are usually prescribed for this condition are, antacids, omeprazole, famotidine (pepcid), H2-receptor antagonists, alginates, and proton-pump inhibitors. But the long term use of these medications may not be good for health. On the other hand, home remedies are very effective in alleviating this condition in a natural way. They can help reduce the dependence on medications.
The simplest remedy for this condition is water. If you drink a glass of water on observing the initial symptoms of acid reflux, it can provide significant relief by washing away the acid from the esophagus to where it belongs, i.e., the stomach. Some fruits like papayas, bananas, and almonds can also help prevent GERD.
The papaya contains an enzyme, known as papain that promotes digestion. The fresh papaya can help reduce the episodes of heartburn. It should be taken before a meal to prevent acidity and indigestion. However, pregnant women and people with latex allergy should not consume papayas without consulting a health care provider. Bananas can act like natural antacids, and coat the stomach lining to shield it from gastric acid.
Sodium carbonate or baking powder can be found in almost every household, but very few people are aware of the fact that it can reduce heartburn. Sodium carbonate can provide quick relief in acid reflux, though its excessive use can raise blood pressure and cause other health problems. A solution of apple cider vinegar and water is another natural remedy for acid reflux.
Many people have also benefited from aloe vera juice, and almond and licorice extract. Aloe vera juice can be effective in healing the intestinal tract, while almonds with their rich oil content can neutralize stomach acid. Licorice on the other hand, contains a compound, known as glycyrrhizin, which has anti-inflammatory properties. So, it can be beneficial for both gastric and esophageal ulcers.
Though an occasional bout of heartburn is quite normal, recurrent and frequent GERD can irritate and inflame the lining of the esophagus leading to the development of ulcers. In the long run, it can bring about a change in the cells of the esophageal lining, and increase the risk of esophageal cancer. To manage this condition effectively, avoid or reduce the intake of caffeine, nicotine, alcoholic and carbonated beverages, and acidic, spicy, and oily food. Eat several frequent meals instead of two or three large meals in a day, and avoid eating before bedtime. If the symptoms do not subside, or the frequency of GERD increases, then get the condition properly evaluated with the help of your physician.
Disclaimer: This article is for informative purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for professional medical advice.