Heartburn, a form of uncomfortable indigestion that causes burning sensations in the chest or upper abdomen, affects millions of people every day yet is largely preventable and treatable by adjusting someone’s diet.
Roughly 20 percent of adult Americans put up with painful heartburn or acid reflux symptoms on a reoccurring weekly basis — more than 60 million yearly — yet many are unaware of simple natural heartburn remedies that work quickly to correct the underlying digestive problem.
Common Heartburn Symptoms
Heartburn is related to acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). These digestive issues are sometimes referred to simply as “indigestion.” 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 laying down flat on your back.
The most common and noticeable heartburn symptoms include:
- burning sensations and pain in the chest
- general discomfort in the upper abdomen or below the breast bone
- stomachaches shortly after eating, feeling like stomach acid is “churning”
- pain that seems to move up from the stomach first and can reach as far up as the throat
- regurgitation or having the sensation of acid backing up into your throat or mouth
- sour and bitter tastes in your mouth
- feeling overly full
- belching, burping and feeling nauseous (symptoms of dyspepsia)
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 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.
For a small percentage of people, constant irritation to the esophagus can worsen into irreversible scarring and a narrowed opening in the throat. It’s possible for esophagus cells to become damaged over time and for changes to occur, including appetite suppression, unexpected weight loss, blood in vomit, changed stools, difficulty or pain with swallowing, and even cancerous cell development.
These are symptoms of a serious condition called “Barrett’s esophagus,” but it’s estimated that only five out of 100 people who have reflux will develop this condition after some time. Look out for serious symptoms like these if you’ve experienced indigestion for an extended period of time and plan to speak with your doctor.
What Causes Heartburn?
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. Although the name implies it would involve the heart, heartburn is primarily caused by digestive problems like stomach acid regurgitation into the esophagus and doesn’t have much to do with 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? Heartburn develops when the muscular valve that controls your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) stops properly keeping stomach acid in the stomach. Normally the LES controls the movement of the “on/off” valve that allow food into the stomach or permits acid and gas to escape. When the LES fails to stay sealed or opens too much and too often, stomach acid can slowly seep out and cause “reflux” symptoms. As the acid moves up into first the esophagus and then possibly the throat or mouth, burning, pain, gas and belching all occur.
The actual sensation of burning is caused by the digestive fluid from the stomach irritating the lining of the esophagus and throat. If acidic stomach juices stay on the lining of the throat for some time, heightened inflammation can develop and the pain can worsen as time goes on. However, don’t get scared just yet — because in about two out of three people with reflux symptoms, the membranes lining their food pipes are normal and not overly inflamed.
The most common underlying causes of the LES not working properly to hold in stomach acid include:
- Certain foods in the diet
- Eating too much at one time
- The “gut-brain connection” and the effects of high stress levels
- Taking certain medications
Many of these causes can be easily fixed by trying heartburn remedies like changing your diet, avoiding overeating and better controlling stressors. 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.
Rather than just ignoring the symptoms of indigestion altogether or using over-the-counter antacids, address the problem at its root with heartburn remedies that really work. This way you can solve the condition for good.
4 Heartburn Remedies to Try Now
1. Eat Smaller Portions Spaced Throughout the Day
Overeating puts a high amount of pressure on the stomach, whether it’s due to obesity, not pacing out meals enough throughout the day, pregnancy or another condition. 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 filled with acid-forming foods, some of the contents of the stomach can literally leak out and flow back into your esophagus, also called your “food pipe.” If the stomach is stretched too far, the valve (called the sphincter) that is intended to keep stomach acid down can open up when signaled by a mixture of chewed food and saliva reaching the lower end of the food pipe.
Many people eat their biggest, heaviest meal at night, which is why heartburn is most common before bedtime. Overeating at dinner time (or after) is usually a habit that forms when you don’t consume enough food during the day. Nighttime overeating (or really, overeating any time of day) can lead to weight gain that is linked to higher rates of heartburn. For example, a 2006 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.
The study demonstrated that patients who were overweight or obese at baseline had a two- to threefold increased risk of frequent GERD symptoms. In subjects with normal body weights, the risk of heartburn increased with weight gain despite the fact that the body mass index remained in the normal range. A weight gain of approximately 10–15 pounds in a normal-weight woman is associated with an increased risk of frequent heartburn symptoms of approximately 40 percent. On the other hand, the good news is that losing approximately 10–15 pounds decreases the occurrence of frequent heartburn by approximately 40 percent — so if you are obese, try these steps to treat obesity naturally.
To avoid weight gain and overeating at dinner or afterward, try spacing out your food intake throughout the day more. Make sure to have a filling breakfast and lunch, even a satisfying healthy snack in between lunch and dinner. 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.
2. Limit Foods that Increase Stomach Acid
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 and meals that are capable of increasing stomach acid and, therefore, aggravating heartburn symptoms include:
- fried foods or meals high in low-quality and refined oils — these are foods you should stop eating immediately if you want avoid heartburn completely
- packaged foods with artificial sweeteners, ingredients, preservatives and flavors
- citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit)
- caffeinated products
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 reoccurring heartburn symptoms.
Step one should be to greatly limit processed foods, including anything artificially flavored, fried or sweetened (cereals, corn and potato chips, muffins, cookies, anything with refined vegetable oils). Consider lowering your grain intake and cutting back greatly on oils like canola, safflower, sunflower, corn and soybean oil.
Focus on eating a healing foods diet filled with whole foods that don’t aggravate your digestive system. Leafy green vegetables, berries, starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, probiotic foods, coconut oil and wild-caught fish are usually all well-tolerated, even for people with sensitive stomachs. 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:
- fresh organic vegetables (especially those containing prebiotic fibers, including artichokes, asparagus, cucumber, pumpkin, squash and fennel)
- healthy fats, including coconut oil, avocado and ghee (easy to digest and nourishing to the digestive tract)
- quality animal proteins like free-range chicken and grass-fed beef
- wild-caught tuna, sardines and salmon
- bone broth (contains enzymes and nutrients like collagen, glutamine, proline and glycine to help rebuild the gut lining)
- aloe vera, raw honey, parsley, ginger and fennel (nourish the digestive tract)
- unpasteurized cultured dairy products like kefir and yogurt, or raw unpasteurized cheeses (help balance healthy bacteria in the stomach)
- fermented vegetables, including kimchi and sauerkraut, or fermented drinks like kombucha (contain beneficial probiotics)
- apple cider vinegar (fermented and helps balances stomach acid)
- teas including chamomile, papaya, fennel and ginger tea
3. Control Your Stress
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. That’s why chronic stress can kill your quality of life. As with other chronic digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or leaky gut syndrome, heartburn intensity is linked to changes in major life events or the accumulation of small stressors that can greatly impact someone’s moods.
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.
Because emotional stressors can cause fluctuations in hormone levels (especially serotonin) and neurotransmitter actions, the “gut-brain” connection picks up on these stressors and signals changes to the stomach. High levels of uncontrolled stress and even a lack of sleep 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.
For similar reasons, exhaustion or chronic fatigue syndrome resulting from sustained stress also has powerful psycho-physiological symptoms that are associated with heartburn exacerbation. 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 “burn out” and overtaxing your adrenal glands that can result in fatigue? Consider trying stress-reducing techniques like deep breathing, massage or acupuncture, healing prayer or meditation, journaling, and using relaxing essential oils.
4. Consider if Your Medications Are to Blame
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.
Best Supplements to Help Naturally Control Heartburn
Eating a healthy diet and busting stress should be your top priorities, but there are some supplements that can help heal the digestive tract and lower symptoms in the meantime while you transition to this lifestyle.
- Digestive enzymes — These can help you fully digest foods, better absorb nutrients and prevent acid buildup. Try taking one or two capsules of a high-quality digestive enzyme at the start of each meal until symptoms dissipate.
- HCL with pepsin — Useful for keeping uncomfortable symptoms at bay. Try taking one 650-milligram pill prior to each meal.
- Probiotics — In addition to eating probiotic foods, you can try taking 25 billion–50 billion units of high-quality probiotics daily to crowd out bad bacteria in the gut.
- Magnesium — Many people are low in this crucial nutrient, experiencing a magnesium deficiency without even realizing it. Magnesium relaxes muscles, can help you sleep better, helps deal with stress, eases digestion and can prevent improper sphincter functioning. Take 400 milligrams of a high-quality magnesium supplement once or twice per day.
- L-Glutamine — L-glutamine has gained attention for being one of the best ways to support healing from digestion disorders like leaky gut, IBS or ulcerative colitis. I recommend taking five grams of glutamine powder twice per day with meals.