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That burning feeling again: Top nutritionist provides heartburn advice

Heartburn is a burning feeling in the chest caused by stomach acid travelling up towards the throat (acid reflux). A good diet can help.

Typical ingredients in the Mediterranean diet. Image by G.steph.rocket (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Typical ingredients in the Mediterranean diet. Image by G.steph.rocket (CC BY-SA 4.0)

While the warmer weather signals activities like BBQ’s and picnics, for those who suffer from frequent heartburn these times of the year and the associated social occasions become challenging, according to  Dr. Vikki Petersen, a Certified Clinical Nutritionist.

Petersen explains to Digital Journal what heartburn is, noting: “Heartburn is the inappropriate movement of your stomach acid up into your esophagus. Your stomach is a “bag of acid” and needs to be so highly acidic in order for you to properly digest your food.”

She adds: “If  your stomach spasms it can result in its contents (acid) shooting up into your esophagus. It can also be called GERD or reflux. Long-term exposure to acid can inflame your esophagus, leading to ulcers and even cancer.”

She also cautions about the medicinal strategy, noting: “Antacids are dangerous in their own right as they have long term consequences on your digestion, immune system and bone health. It is critical to fully resolve the root cause of your heartburn.”

To help readers, Dr. Vikki Petersen provides seven causes of heartburn that interested Digital Journal readers need to be aware of. These are;

#1: Obesity

Being overweight often is associated with an enlarged abdomen and weak abdominal muscles. Good core strength is important to balance the muscles involved in proper digestion. Interestingly, your core muscles are very involved in the proper function and tone of your diaphragm which sits just above your stomach and is a causative factor in heartburn when it is malfunctioning.

#2: Smoking

Smoking can relax the sphincter in your esophagus that, by design, prevents food from moving from your stomach into your esophagus. Integrity of this sphincter can be compromised by smoking.

#3: High-fat diet

Excessive “bad” fats put stress on the liver, gall bladder and stomach. Such irritation can cause heartburn and the presence of inhospitable organisms in your gut. Try incorporating some lower fat foods into your diet.

#4: Stress

High, chronic stress puts you into a state of fight or flight, a nervous system response that is incompatible with proper digestion. Good digestion relies on teh nervous system being in balance – both the sympathetic and parasympatheic need to be working at full capacity, not just the “fight or flight’ response of the sympathetic nervous system.

#5: Insomnia

Insomnia is often the result of heartburn because the irritation created by acid reflux tends to occur more often at night when you are lying down. If you are prone to heartburn try eating foods to reduce this, especially before bed, so you can get a better night’s sleep.

#6: Too much caffeine

Excess caffeine can cause heartburn in some individuals. Caffeine can relax the sphincter in the lower esophagus that helps prevent food from moving in the wrong direction. If you are someone who’s sphincter relaxes due to caffeine, you will suffer from more acid reflux.

#7: Hiatal hernia

I wrote a book on the subject that goes into depth on this topic, but briefly, a hiatal hernia is when the stomach elevates, pushing on to or rising above the diaphragm. This incorrect positioning often results in the acid present in the stomach to move up into the esophagus with heartburn as a result.

In terms of avoiding and treating heartburn, Dr. Vikki Petersen recommends the following:

Tip #1: Eat slowly and chew your food well

Over-filling your stomach can cause it to spasm and move upwards, resulting in heartburn. Try eating more slowly and take more time to chew your food.

Tip #2: Do not lie down after eating

While it may be tempting, stay upright allowing gravity to assist digestion. Remember your digestive tract moves from the top down. If you lie down or hunch over it can interfere with efficient movement of food from your stomach to your small intestine.

Tip #3: Exercise is best done on an empty stomach

Wait at least 30 to 60 minutes, or until you no longer have any sensation of being full, before beginning exercise. Note: this does not include an easy stroll after a meal. Gentle movement like walking after eating actually assists digestion.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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