Heartburn, a form of uncomfortable indigestion, affects millions of people every day, yet is largely preventable and treatable.
In April 2o20, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called for retailers in the U.S. to pull the popular over-the-counter heartburn medication called Zantac from store shelves. Although Zantac has been used by millions of people for years in order to reduce acid reflux and heartburn symptoms, according to available research reviewed by the FDA, the drug may contain a probable human carcinogen.
Here’s the good news: Not only are there other medications that can be safely be used in Zantac’s place, but you can also benefit from simple natural heartburn remedies that often work quickly to correct the underlying causes of this digestive problem.
Heartburn is defined as “a form of indigestion felt as a burning sensation in the chest, caused by acid regurgitation into the esophagus.”
This condition is related to acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). These digestive issues are sometimes referred to simply as “indigestion.”
Heartburn and more chronic forms of GERD are two of the most common health conditions affecting Americans despite the availability of simple lifestyle or even medical intervention options.
What causes acid reflux and heartburn? Diet and lifestyle habits, mostly.
They commonly produce a variety of temporary, yet uncomfortable and often painful, symptoms. The most common times to experience heartburn or acid reflux symptoms occur at night after eating a large meal, during movement like bending or lifting, or when lying down flat on your back.
The most common and noticeable heartburn symptoms include:
Wondering if heartburn is dangerous or simply inconvenient to deal with? Occasional heartburn here and there — especially after eating common “trigger” foods that are acid-forming — isn’t thought to be dangerous, but according to studies, experiencing these symptoms on an ongoing basis could raise a red flag for a chronic condition like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
GERD can sometimes lead to serious problems, so it’s important to evaluate what’s causing the symptoms. This usually means making some adjustments to your lifestyle using acid reflux remedies that target the underlying digestive and stress issues.
Although the name implies it would involve the heart, heartburn is primarily caused by digestive problems like stomach acid regurgitation into the esophagus. It doesn’t actually have much to do with one’s cardiovascular system.
It was named “heartburn” because some of the symptoms — like pain and throbbing near the breast bone and heart — are similar to those that would occur when someone is having a heart attack. In fact, some people actually suffering a heart attack mistakenly think that they’re dealing with heartburn and don’t rush to the emergency room!
Why does indigestion like heartburn happen?
The most common underlying causes of the LES not working properly to hold in stomach acid include:
Research shows that other risk factors for heartburn include: older age, excessive body mass index (BMI), smoking, anxiety/depression, and less physical activity at work.
Although it commonly goes away after delivery, more than half of all pregnant women also experience some sort of heartburn at one point or another, caused by increased pressure on the digestive organs and hormonal changes.
Many of the causes of heartburn can be fixed by trying heartburn remedies like changing your diet, avoiding overeating, and better controlling stressors. Here are several natural remedies to try before relying on medications:
Overeating puts a high amount of pressure on the stomach. When the body senses that you’ve eaten a large amount at once, stomach acid production is turned up in order to facilitate digestion. After eating a heavy meal, especially one that’s high in fat or filled with acid-forming foods, according to studies, some of the contents of the stomach can literally leak out and flow back into your esophagus.
Many people eat their biggest, heaviest meal at night, which is why heartburn is most common before bedtime. Nighttime overeating may also lead to weight gain that is linked to higher rates of heartburn. For example, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that obesity likely causes heartburn due to many factors, including an increase in intra-abdominal pressure, a greater association of hiatal hernia and hormonal factors.
To avoid weight gain and overeating at dinner or afterward, try spacing out your food intake throughout the day more. If you’re the type of person that usually eats two to three bigger meals a day, try shifting to a schedule of eating four to six smaller meals and front-loading your calorie intake toward the earlier part of the day.
Studies generally suggest that it’s best to avoid eating at least three hours before going to sleep.
Adjusting your diet to remove or reduce certain foods that can trigger the LES to allow for acid to sneak out from the stomach can greatly help reduce reflux.
Foods that may worsen heartburn symptoms include:
Dealing with heartburn doesn’t necessarily mean you have to avoid these foods altogether, but take note of what you’re eating prior to experiencing any painful symptoms. Everyone reacts differently to acidic foods, and it might take some trial and error in order to establish which are the worst offenders for you personally.
You might want to keep an ongoing record so you can easily connect the dots between certain foods and recurring heartburn symptoms.
Focus on eating a healing foods diet filled with whole foods that don’t aggravate your digestive system. The GAPS diet is a great example of a protocol that focuses on whole foods that treat digestive issues like IBS, leaky gut, acid reflux and many other conditions.
Healing foods on the GAPS diet include:
Stress is more than just something you feel in your head — it’s actually a powerful hormonal trigger that can affect nearly every bodily system, from immunity to digestion. One 2013 study published in the Journal of Digestive Diseases and Sciences found that symptoms of reflux esophagitis disorders are significantly associated with psychosocial stress levels, and the severity of reflux esophagitis correlates with the degree of stress.
High levels of uncontrolled stress and even sleep deprivation can increase acid production in the stomach, which helps cause heartburn, so many people with frequent indigestion or GERD find that stress triggers their symptoms.
Other effects of stress can include increased level and frequency of esophageal acid exposure, inhibition of gastric emptying of acid, or stress-induced hypersensitivity.
In one study of adults experiencing frequent heartburn, the presence of severe and persistent life stressors or ongoing exhaustion during a six-month period significantly predicted increased heartburn symptoms during the following four months.
To help curb your heartburn symptoms or other signs of digestive distress, look to the root cause of the problem. How are you handling stress from work or relationships? How much sleep are you getting? Are you doing your best to avoid “burnout” and overtaxing your adrenal glands that can result in fatigue?
Consider trying stress-relieving techniques like deep breathing, massage or acupuncture, healing prayer or meditation, journaling, and using relaxing essential oils.
Eating a healthy diet should be your top priority, but there are some supplements that can help heal the digestive tract and lower symptoms in the meantime while you transition to this lifestyle.
6. Be Careful About the Medications You Take
It’s possible that heartburn symptoms can worsen from taking medications, such as the birth control pill or certain drugs used to treat high blood pressure. Another thing to avoid is smoking cigarettes, since smoking relaxes the LES and stimulates stomach acid.
Additionally, if you are going to use medications to control heartburn symptoms, be careful about which type you choose. In 2020, research revealed that over-the-counter drugs containing ranitidine, which includes the brand name drug Zantac, can contain a contaminant that poses a risk to the public’s health. The contaminant, called N-nitrosodimethylamine or NDMA that’s found in ranitidine, is thought to increase over time and when stored at higher-than-normal temperatures.
Although it hasn’t been found in a high percentage of Zantac samples that the FDA has tested, consumers are still advised to stop taking any ranitidine tablets or liquid medications and to stop buying these drugs. NDMA has not been found in some other heartburn drugs, including famotidine or Pepcid, esomeprazole or Nexium, or omeprazole or Prilosec — so if you feel that medicating is necessary, choose these drugs instead.