13 Main Causes of Heartburn (and What to Do)

Heartburn is a burning sensation that can be caused by a number of factors, such as drinking alcohol, eating high-fat foods, being overweight, being pregnant or smoking.

Burning may also be related to gastroesophageal reflux, which is a disease caused by the return of stomach contents to the esophagus, causing pain and discomfort. Learn more about what reflux is and how to treat it .

The main symptom of heartburn is a burning sensation that starts in the lower chest area and goes up to the throat. It can start up to 2 hours after eating or drinking, during exercise, when lying on your back or at night. Learn about the main symptoms and how to avoid heartburn .

Main causes

The main causes of heartburn are:

1. Smoke

The chemicals in cigarettes, such as nicotine, increase the relaxation of the muscles in the esophagus, which are responsible for closing the stomach and preventing the stomach contents from returning. Thus, when the muscles in the esophagus are relaxed, gastric juice returns towards the esophagus, causing heartburn.

What to do: Quitting smoking is the most recommended option, as this helps to balance the contraction of the esophagus muscles, thus improving heartburn symptoms.

2. Caffeinated drinks

Drinking caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, cola, black tea, green tea, mate tea and chocolate, can also cause heartburn symptoms. This happens because caffeine increases the relaxation of the muscles in the esophagus, encouraging the return of gastric juices to the esophagus.

What to do: It is recommended to avoid or reduce the consumption of foods and drinks rich in caffeine and observe whether symptoms improve. Another alternative is to avoid consuming these drinks on an empty stomach.

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3. Large volumes of food

Consuming large volumes of food during meals can also cause heartburn, because when the stomach becomes very full and distended, it makes it difficult for the esophageal sphincter to close, making it easier for food to return to the esophagus and throat.

What to do: you should prioritize small volumes of food, distributed in 5 to 6 meals throughout the day, chewing food well and calmly.

4. Pregnancy

Heartburn is common especially in the 2nd and 3rd trimester of pregnancy, as the lack of space for organs in the woman’s abdomen, together with the increase in progesterone levels in the blood, make it difficult for the esophageal sphincter to close, causing reflux and heartburn.

What to do: Pregnant women should eat small amounts of food, spread over 5 to 6 meals throughout the day, and only lie down 30 minutes after eating. In addition, it is important to maintain a balanced diet. See more tips on how to combat heartburn during pregnancy.

5. Ingestion of certain foods

Fatty foods, such as fried foods, chocolates or ice cream, take longer to digest and remain in the stomach for longer, which increases acid production. In addition, excess fat increases the relaxation of the muscles in the esophagus, which allows the acidic contents of the stomach to return to the esophagus, causing heartburn.

Spicy seasonings, such as curry, pepper and paprika, and citrus fruits, such as orange, lemon or pineapple, can cause irritation, increasing stomach acidity in some people, especially on an empty stomach, which can cause heartburn.

What to do: It is important to avoid eating citrus fruits on an empty stomach and consuming foods that are high in fat. In addition, it is also advisable to replace spicy seasonings with herbs, such as basil, rosemary or thyme.

6. Stress

Stress can cause mood swings, increasing cravings for foods high in sugar and fat, thus favoring the onset of heartburn.

Additionally, stress is believed to increase the sensitivity of the esophagus, worsening heartburn symptoms.

What to do: Drinking natural calming teas, such as chamomile or lemon balm, can help relax the central nervous system, relieving stress. In addition, setting aside time for leisure activities can help reduce stress. Learn more about other suggestions for reducing stress .

7. Reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a condition where the acidic contents of the stomach return to the esophagus, causing, among other symptoms, heartburn.

What to do: Avoid consuming foods that increase stomach acid production, such as spicy spices, citrus fruits, fatty foods and caffeinated drinks.

8. Use of certain medications

Frequent use of medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, citalopram, and some medications used for chemotherapy, depression, osteoporosis and high blood pressure can cause heartburn because they irritate the esophagus or cause relaxation of the esophageal muscles, facilitating the return of acidic stomach contents to the esophagus.

What to do: Avoid frequent use of these medications and only lie down 30 minutes after taking the medication. If symptoms persist, talk to your doctor to assess the possibility of replacing or using the medication in another way.

9. Lie down after meals

Lying down immediately after eating can increase stomach acid production and make it easier for acidic foods from the stomach to come back up into the esophagus, causing heartburn.

What to do: Have your last meal no more than 2 hours before going to bed. You can also tilt the head of the bed and place pillows on it to keep your upper body elevated.

10. Drinking liquids during meals

Drinking liquids during meals causes the stomach to become very full, making it difficult for the esophageal sphincter to close, especially when consuming carbonated drinks, such as soft drinks, as the gas in these drinks also causes distension in the stomach.

What to do: It is important to avoid drinking liquids 30 minutes before and after meals, to prevent the sphincter from relaxing and to help digestion occur more quickly.

11. Excess weight

Even small increases in weight can cause heartburn, especially in people with a history of indigestion or gastritis. This probably happens because the accumulation of abdominal fat increases the pressure against the stomach, favoring the return of gastric contents to the esophagus and causing the burning sensation.

What to do: you should improve your diet, avoid foods rich in fat and lose weight, so that your intestinal transit can flow more easily again.

12. Consumption of alcoholic beverages

Frequent alcohol consumption can cause heartburn because alcohol relaxes the esophageal sphincter muscles, which encourages food and stomach acid to return to the esophagus. In addition, alcohol increases the production of gastric juice and can cause gastritis, which is usually accompanied by a burning sensation caused by heartburn.

What to do: you should stop drinking alcohol and have a balanced diet, with plenty of fruit, vegetables and water to promote the proper functioning of the entire digestive system.

13. Physical activity

Some physical activities such as yoga and pilates or specific exercises such as sit-ups and movements that require standing upside down increase pressure in the abdomen and force gastric contents back up into the esophagus, causing heartburn.

What to do: It is important to eat at least 2-3 hours before practicing physical activity, and if symptoms do not improve, exercises that cause burning and pain should be avoided.


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