If heartburn is something that everyone faces, though, shouldn’t we know more about it? Sure, you probably know that spicy foods trigger that burning feeling, and maybe you even know that fatty foods could be the culprit. But other than that, most people are completely clueless about heartburn, according to Juan Carlos Bucobo, MD, chief of endoscopy at Stony Brook University Hospital. Maybe that’s because “heartburn isn’t actually a health condition,” he says. “It’s a symptom.”
So when you say you “have heartburn,” what you really have is acid reflux. Heartburn is just one—albeit the most common—symptom. Other symptoms include: a sore throat, a dry cough, difficulty swallowing, and regurgitating food or a sour liquid.
When you have acid reflux all the time, doctors call it GERD, and that’s when it becomes an actual disease that needs treatment. If you’re having heartburn multiple times a week, or if your heartburn is so bad it messes with your quality of life, Bucobo says to see a doctor.
For those of us who just experience occasional heartburn, it’s still important to know what triggers it—other than that five-alarm chili. Here, 5 things you had no idea were triggering or worsening your heartburn.
There are two main causes of acid reflux, Bucobo says: an underlying medical problem like a hiatal hernia, which happens when the upper part of yourstomach pushes up into your chest cavity, or a trigger that relaxes the sphincter muscle in your esophagus that normally blocks stomach acid from rising back up your throat. Certain foods and behaviors can relax the muscle. Although Bucobo says food triggers are different for every patient, certain ones pop up again and again.
Caffeinated foods and drinks—like coffee, tea, and even chocolate—are biggies. “I’ve had patients who think they’re doing everything right, but then I have them record a food diary,” Bucobo says. “I look and they’ve been drinking three bottles of caffeinated iced tea a day!”
Drink a little too much last night? It could be causing more than a hangover. While some experts believe both alcohol and tobacco affect the pressure on your lower esophageal sphincter, their effect on your saliva may also flare up heartburn. Both alcohol and tobacco are dehydrating, which decreases the amount of saliva in your mouth. “If you have less saliva, you’re not going to be able to clear as much acid in your stomach,” Bucobo says. And some of that acid can make its way back up into your throat.
If you’re a fan of peppermint gum, you might want to stop chewing (or switch to a different flavor). Like caffeine, peppermint also relaxes the sphincter muscle that keeps your stomach acid at bay, according to Bucobo. So anything you eat or drink that contains peppermint oil—teas, candies, and desserts—could be the culprit. Keeping a food diary is a good way to identify triggers.
Sometimes, it’s perfectly fine to eat at night (and the right snacks can even help you lose weight). But it might be best to steer clear if you’re prone to heartburn. Bucobo tells his patients with acid reflux to avoid eating at least two hours before bed. “As soon as you lay down, gravity makes things worse,” he says. When you’re flat on your back, (or side, or stomach) it makes it a lot easier for acid to wash back up your esophagus. And if you eat before bed, and kick-start digestion, you’ll have even more acid in your stomach.
You know that moment about 20 minutes after you scarf down Thanksgiving dinner when your chest starts to burn? Yep, that’s an after-effect of eating your weight in turkey, mashed potatoes, and candied yams. As soon as you start eating, your body revs up digestion and starts producing stomach acid. The more food you put in, the longer it takes to move that food, and the acid, to your intestines. “So your body is producing all this acid and it’s not emptying out into the small intestine,” Bucobo says. “That means there’s more of a chance that some of that acid will come up out of the stomach and into the esophagus.”