Despite its name, heartburn is not a problem with your heart.
You feel it as a burning sensation in the middle of your chest, sometimes with nausea, coughing, a sore throat, and a sour taste in your mouth. The irritation may even be felt as a pain in the middle of your back between your shoulder blades.
It may feel as if the discomfort is coming from your heart, but it’s actually coming from the point where your esophagus meets your stomach (located directly behind your heart).
What Is Heartburn?
Heartburn is also known as acid reflux—a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Your stomach is full of hydrochloric acid and enzymes that break down the proteins and other nutrients in your food. Your stomach lining is made of special tissues that can safely hold these harsh chemicals, but your esophagus (the tube connecting your mouth to your stomach) is not.
A muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) forms the gateway between your esophagus and stomach. The LES opens to let food pass into your stomach, then closes so that food and stomach acid don’t come back up.
But after years and years of daily abuse, the LES can weaken and may not close as tightly as it should. This allows stomach acid to flow back up (reflux) into your esophagus, causing the burning sensation we call heartburn.
Foods That Worsen Your Heartburn
The way you eat can directly affect how often you experience heartburn.
Fatty, greasy foods (fried foods, cheeseburgers, pizza, and pastries) stimulate the release of bile salts and hormones that relax your LES, leading to a higher chance of acid reflux.
High-protein foods (steak, chicken, pork) stimulate the production and release of stomach acid, which means there’s more acid that could potentially reflux.
Spicy foods (chili peppers and curry) can irritate your esophagus and increase inflammation, preventing the LES from closing properly.
Unchewed food can stretch and weaken your LES as big chunks pass through. Slow down and chew your food to a smooth paste before swallowing.
Alcohol damages the tissues of your esophagus and relaxes your LES, allowing acid reflux to occur more easily and be more destructive.
Coffee and soda can promote stomach acid secretion and weaken your LES, leading to more heartburn.
Milk is high in protein and fat, so although it may feel soothing at first, it can actually make your heartburn worse.
Hot temperature foods and drinks will also irritate and damage your esophageal tissues, preventing the sphincter from functioning properly.
If you are experiencing heartburn regularly, pay attention to what you eat and drink. If you continue eating the same foods that trigger your heartburn, you may have more serious problems like ulcers and severe tissue damage.
Heartburn-Friendly Foods to Eat Instead
In addition to avoiding the foods that worsen your heartburn, you can help reduce your symptoms by eating heartburn-friendly foods.
Low-fat proteins (lean meats, fish, beans, and whole grains) are easier for your stomach to digest and may help reduce the chance of acid reflux.
Non-citrus fruits (bananas, apples, pears) and vegetables (leafy greens, broccoli, carrots) are easy to digest and provide antioxidants that can help reduce inflammation and promote healing.
Yogurt and other probiotic-rich foods can help balance the healthy bacteria in your gut, which may help reduce the chance of acid reflux.
Low-calorie foods can help you lose weight, which could reduce your heartburn.
Also, avoid lying down after eating a meal, as this horizontal position makes it easy for acids to flow back up into your esophagus.
Heartburn can be a painful and annoying condition, but by making some simple lifestyle changes and paying attention to what you eat, you can help reduce and reverse your symptoms.
Talk to your doctor if your heartburn is severe or doesn’t improve with self-care. You may need prescription acid blockers or other medications to help control your symptoms.