Somewhere in the early 2010s, I sat down to a plate of tacos at an outdoor stand. Complete with red salsa, onions, radishes, and a fresh splash of lime juice, it was the time-tested, affordable solution to a Sunday hangover, after a weekend of heavy drinking. I decided to add a large Coca-Cola from the fountain, fizzing with a relaxing rustle of ice cubes… and a free refill, since I asked nicely.
On the walk back to my bandmate’s apartment, my 20-something self was suddenly humbled by a foreign, unusual feeling – a slight soreness in my neck and shoulders, and most importantly, a growing, heavy, burning feeling in between my rib cage that spread through my entire body. Before I knew it, I was lying on the steep pavement of Descanso Drive, with my styrofoam refill of Coca Cola beside me, unfinished.
Was carne asada going to be the end of me? Since I’m lucky to be from a family of doctors, I was quickly reassured that I wasn’t in fact dying. Instead it was something much more anticlimactic. It was… heartburn!? I thought heartburn only afflicted unhealthy, middle-aged men, after too many hot wings, beers, and BBQ. And here I was, a lanky, 20-something in relatively good health, steamrolled onto my back by an almost psychedelic degree of pain. I was humbled… finally, I was no longer immortal. I would need to think about what I put into my body.
What is heartburn?
If you’re reading this blog, you probably know what heartburn feels like, but you might not know what’s actually going on in your body when it occurs. I’m here, as a sometime sufferer and full-time guide, to help you navigate this opaque world of digestive health, starting with heartburn.
To put it simply, heartburn is the burning sensation brought on by something called acid reflux. The terms heartburn and acid reflux are often used interchangeably, when in fact, heartburn is just a symptom of acid reflux. Acid reflux refers to stomach acid backing up into your esophagus, the muscular tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. To get a little more technical, this overflow (or reflux) of acid happens when the valve between your esophagus and stomach, known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), doesn’t properly close, which allows gastric acid to flow freely out of your stomach.1
Heartburn usually begins soon after eating, and can be over in a matter of minutes, but sometimes it can last for hours. Besides the namesake “burning,” other symptoms of heartburn can include coughing, a hoarse voice, a sour taste in your mouth, or a feeling like there’s food stuck in your throat, even when there’s nothing there.
Occasional heartburn is common, and the problem can usually be fixed by the right medications mixed with a combination of diet and/or lifestyle changes. However, if you’re experiencing heartburn more than once a week or your symptoms are particularly severe, you may suffer from GERD. (GERD, which stands for Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, is a chronic condition of acid reflux. We recommend you discuss this issue with your doctor, but know that GERD is very common and treatable.. We’ll talk more about GERD in future other posts.)
What causes it?
So what causes your LES to malfunction? The most common, short term reasons are foods that are acidic, spicy or high in fat… like my delicious plate of tacos. Acidic foods, tomatoes (and tomato products such as ketchup), onions, chocolate, cheese, and spicy or fried foods are usual suspects. Large meals are particularly likely to cause heartburn as well. Since it typically begins right after eating, it’s usually not hard to find the culprit.
As far as beverages – caffeinated or carbonated drinks can also ignite that fire. Other non-food sources of heartburn include certain medications, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, sedatives and blood pressure pills. Tobacco also affects the function of the LES, by relaxing the muscle… one more reason to quit smoking, if you didn’t have enough already. Carrying extra body weight or being pregnant can also trigger heartburn, because of the added pressure extra weight can put on the stomach area.
Stress is also a contributor to heartburn, although scientists are still debating exactly how and why. According to Harvard University, emotional stress increases the production of stomach acid,2causing heartburn. Unfortunately, heartburn and other digestive issues causepeople stress as well, which then leads to a vicious cycle that we’ll talk about in future posts.
Despite our (and my) natural instinct to lie down when heartburn strikes, lying down or bending over can actually make the symptoms worse, because it lets stomach acid flow even more easily into the esophagus. It can also get worse in the evening – exactly when you want to lie down the most.3
So what can I do about it?
That depends on the scale of the issue, but the simple answer is to try and prevent it in the first place. Heartburn has clear triggers, so try to avoid the acidic, spicy and fatty foods that cause it. Eat smaller and more frequent meals, rather than large ones that stress the digestive system. And, whenever possible, wait 2-3 hours after eating before lying down.
If the symptoms are already hitting you, over-the-counter antacids can help. At Wonderbelly, we’re partial to the Wonderbelly Antacid, of course, because of our clean ingredients, excellent flavor, and sustainable packaging… but honestly we support whatever products you use to find relief. Please note: If your symptoms don’t get better with over-the-counter solutions, or happen more than twice a week, or start up after exertion or exercise, it may be a sign of a more serious issue, and we recommend seeing a doctor.
Lastly, we want to encourage you to try to be open about what’s really going on in your belly. Are you overly stressed right now because of what’s going on in the world? Are you spending more time at your desk than normal, and not moving around as much? Are you having a few more drinks, or eating more than normal? These are all things that can add to your heartburn symptoms, and can be difficult to overcome or avoid. For some inspiration, check out our founder Lucas’s story of his heartburn journey.
Join us here at Guts & Butts to learn more about best practices and advice when it comes to quelling the flames within you. We’ll have expert opinions from some of the top GIs in the country, and helpful stories from other people who suffer from all kinds of gut problems – not just heartburn. We all want to be able to enjoy a plate of tacos once in a while, without having to curl up on the floor... like I did. Almost everyone experiences heartburn and other digestive issues at some point – so come on over, spill your guts and get to know your belly a little better. Let’s kick some acid together.