With the festive season often comes overindulging in delicious treat foods and drinks that can lead to digestive upsets including heartburn. There are many factors that can contribute to heartburn; sometimes the healthiest of people can experience this very unpleasant symptom, and there are also many things that can set it off. Let’s look closer at some of the causes and triggers of heartburn and our top tips to help combat it.
What is heartburn?
Heartburn occurs when stomach acid flows back up into the oesophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. At the bottom of the oesophagus there is a ring of muscle that relaxes to allow food into the stomach and tightens to prevent stomach acid from escaping. If that muscle does not function as it should then we see stomach acid flow back up into the oesophagus causing pain and irritation.
It is commonly believed that heartburn is caused by an increased production of stomach acid. Whilst this can be the case for some, for many others the cause can be the opposite and can be due to a low level of stomach acid and poor digestion. A low level of hydrochloric acid (HCL) can result in the incomplete digestion of proteins, fats and carbohydrates due to a lack of digestive enzymes, causing food to linger in the stomach. The increased pressure on the oesophageal sphincter forces it open leading to regurgitation into the sensitive tissues of the oesophagus, causing the burning sensation. There can be many other symptoms that accompany heartburn that are due to inadequate digestion such as – bloating, flatulence, diarrhoea or constipation and feeling full quickly.
Common causes of heartburn
Stress – this is a very common trigger for heartburn and often is a major reason for digestive upsets in general. When we are stressed our digestive system slows right down. This goes back to our hunter gatherer days when a threat or ‘stress’ was a sabre-tooth tiger trying to eat us. The body did not deem digestion as essential during this time and would shunt all your blood supply to your limbs so that you could run as fast as possible from the threat. Today, our stress is very different and does not require us to run fast however the body still has a similar response leading to reduced digestion and heartburn.
Diet – there is no doubt that diet plays a part in the development and worsening of heartburn and some are more susceptible to this than others. Processed fatty foods, sugar, soft drinks, alcohol and spicy food can all trigger an attack. There are many reasons for this that include food sensitivities, difficulty in digesting these foods, lack of fibre content and the effect these foods have on the bacterial balance in our gut.
Lifestyle – a sedentary lifestyle does not help digestion as regular exercise will stimulate the movement of the bowel and other organs, a bit like massaging your insides as you move. Other lifestyle habits such as smoking and lack of sleep will also further contribute to heartburn.
Age – as we age our digestion slows down and our gastric acid production reduces making it harder to breakdown the foods we eat and to extract the nutrients from our food. Try increasing bitter foods in the diet for example rocket, chicory, arugula, endive, cauliflower, artichokes, broccoli, lemon, lime, ginger, pepper, cacao, green tea.
Infections - Helicobacter Pylori has been found to be a major causal factor of heartburn, indigestion, and stomach ulcers. This is due to the microbe inhibiting gastric acid secretion in order to survive and damaging the stomach lining. Speak to your doctor about testing for H. pylori if you frequently suffer from heartburn.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) – in this condition the beneficial bacteria found in the colon have migrated up to and proliferated in the small intestine causing increased abdominal pressure which leads to a myriad of digestive complaints including heartburn. A lactulose breath test through your doctor or Naturopath can help diagnose SIBO.
Tips to help ease the burn!
Apple cider vinegar shots – a tablespoon of organic unfiltered apple cider vinegar in warm water can help reduce heartburn. It increases your hydrochloric acid levels, helping you to digest those rich foods better. We recommend taking it first thing in the morning.
Reach for some herbs – slippery elm, chamomile, marshmallow, meadowsweet, lemon balm, fennel and gentian can all help relieve digestive disturbances and heartburn. You can take these as a tea, in tablets or capsules or in liquid herbal extracts.
Eat smaller meals more frequently – this can make it easier for your body to digest the food and can prevent an over-production of gastric acid.
Elevate your head when sleeping – if heartburn is disrupting your sleep try elevating your head, this can effectively reduce symptoms.
Wear looser fitting clothing around the waste – restrictive clothing that puts pressure on the abdomen can increase heartburn.
Try some digestive enzymes – these can improve the body’s digestive processes, helping your body break down food better, reducing symptoms of heartburn.
Eliminate FODMAP’s - Fermentable-Oligosaccharides-Disaccharides- Monosaccharides and Polyols (FODMAP) are types of specific carbohydrates found in many fruits, vegetables, starches and dairy foods, that may cause digestive problems when there is bacterial overgrowth present in the small intestine. The bacteria in the intestine feed off these fermentable carbohydrates, contributing to bloating, gas, and symptoms of indigestion including heartburn. We recommend speaking to a health professional about following a FODMAP diet. It is not designed for long term use but rather to assess food intolerances and gastrointestinal disorders.
Heartburn and other digestive disorders can be a sign of an underlying health condition. If you are suffering from heartburn seek help from your healthcare practitioner today.