Natural Remedies for Heartburn | Almanac.com

Natural Remedies for Heartburn

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What causes heartburn, and how to get relief

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With the holiday feasting season coming up, here are some things you may want to know about heartburn (aka acid indigestion). Learn what causes heartburn and discover a few top heartburn remedies!

Ever seen the TV ads are people getting whacked around by a huge replica of the greasy or spicy food they’ve just eaten, while the narrator says, “When heartburn hits, fight back fast with…”

What exactly is heartburn? There are a lot of confusing terms. Let’s back up and review before we get into how to prevent heartburn and home remedies.

What is Heartburn?

“Heartburn” may be the common name, but it’s also known as acid indigestion, acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux (GER), or the medical term pyrosis. Heartburn often strikes as a burning, stabbing, or throbbing pain in the center of your chest. It has nothing to do with your heart,* but everything to do with some of your stomach contents regurgitating back up into your esophagus and/or throat (pharynx). Symptoms may also include belching or a sour taste.

Almost everyone has experienced heartburn after a major eating indiscretion, a vigorous episode of bending and stooping to complete a physical task, or straining to lift something heavy. One survey found a third of Americans reported experiencing acid indigestion in the previous week. 

A Chronic Form of Heartburn: GERD

Sometimes heartburn (GER) progresses to gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD). An estimated 20% of Americans suffer from GERD; its most common symptom is more frequent heartburn—two or more times a week. Other signs and symptoms can include regurgitation of food or sour liquid, difficulty swallowing, coughing, wheezing, and chest pain (especially while lying down at night). Unmanaged GERD can disturb a person’s quality of life and sleep. Sometimes it can cause other, even serious, complications.

Another Form of Acid Reflux: LPR

Another common form of reflux, laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), is much less well-known and studied than GER. It’s sometimes called “silent reflux,” because it doesn’t cause the burning pain of typical GER (although some people experience both GERD and LPR).

LPR may go relatively unnoticed, but it often causes chronic symptoms such as post-nasal drip, the feeling of something stuck in the back of the throat, frequent throat-clearing, coughing, sore throat, and hoarseness. People with LPR are often misdiagnosed and treated for chronic allergies or sinus infections.

Researchers speculate that LPR may result less from the backwash of acidic stomach contents, and more from both liquid and aerosolized forms of the digestive enzyme pepsin.  

What Causes Heartburn?

Heartburn (GER)—as well as the LPR form of acid reflux—happens when the muscular valve between the esophagus (food tube) and the stomach relaxes. Designed to close and stay tightly closed after swallowing food or liquids, the muscle loosens and opens, allowing small amounts of stomach contents to flow into the esophagus, the throat, or the mouth, where it irritates the more sensitive linings in those upper-digestive-system organs. 

Although the etiology (original cause) is unknown, many factors can trigger the uncomfortable symptoms, among them:

  • overweight,
  • pregnancy,
  • genetic susceptibility,
  • loss of muscle integrity with age,
  • certain medications,
  • chemicals in some foods/drinks,
  • hiatal hernia,
  • and even tight clothing around the midsection.   

An interesting study suggests that birds and mammals developed high levels of stomach acidity, not to aid digestion, but to protect against food poisoning, raising questions about how modern life may be disrupting the microbial communities within our gut, causing negative health consequences.

Preventing Heartburn

Gastroenterologists generally recommend lifestyle modifications as a first line of treatment to ease the symptoms of GER and LPR. For example: 

  • Watch your weight. Yes, you hear this all the time but heartburn is directly linked to obesity. Weight loss can lead to dramatic reduction or elimination of reflux symptoms.
  • Stop smoking. Studies show that nicotine relaxes the esophageal sphincter, reduces acid-neutralizing saliva, increases production of stomach acid, and damages the lining of the esophagus.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals, eat slowly. Smaller amounts of food put less pressure on the stomach, and eating slowly helps prevent swallowing large amounts of air, which can distend the stomach.
  • Elevate the head of your bed four to six inches by placing blocks or bricks underneath your mattress, or using a wedge pillow. This helps prevent your stomach contents from regurgitating into your throat while you sleep. It may even improve your sleep.
  • Remain upright for three hours after eating, especially before bedtime, to allow gravity to aid digestion and stomach emptying. This means eat your last meal at least 3 hours before bedtime and maintain good upright posture until you lie down for sleep.
  • Swallow medicines with water and in an upright position. Stuck or dissolving in the esophagus, some medicines and supplements can irritate its sensitive lining.
  • Wear loose clothing around your waist and abdomen. Restrictive, tight clothing can place extra pressure on the stomach.
  • Keep a food/drink diary. Note foods, drinks, or meals that seem to trigger or aggravate your reflux. Research suggests that fried foods, high-fat foods, chocolate, onions, alcohol, carbonated beverages, and acidic foods such as tomatoes and citrus fruits aggravate GER and LPR
  • Lay off the coffee. People with GER and LPR symptoms are often urged to stop drinking coffee and tea. For those of you with a strong caffeine habit, the jury is still out on whether you need to quit your habit to quell GERD.
  • Exercise. In addition to the many other health benefits it confers, moderate exercise helps maintain a normal weight. Heavy lifting and intense aerobic exercise could make it worse, though. Keep it simple: Take a walk 30 minutes after a big meal to aide digestion and feel better.

Natural Remedies for Heartburn

Humans have suffered from digestive maladies throughout history, and have probably sought relief using simple techniques and nearby remedies. Here are a few, one of which may work for you:

  • A small spoonful of raw honey (especially manuka honey) two or three times a day may soothe and even heal inflamed gastric membranes
  • Apple cider vinegar (1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a glass of water) once a day works for some folks (but others find it irritating).
  • Chamomile, catnip, dandelion, and fennel also help to calm digestion.
  • Fresh papaya is a good way to end a meal to aid digestion.
  • Try drinking a 1/4 cup of Aloe vera juice—easy to make at home—offers health benefits that include heartburn relief for some.
  • Chewing fennel or anise seeds after a large meal may help a mild case of indigestion.
  • Take half a teaspoon of ordinary baking soda in four ounces of water to temporarily neutralize the acid and relieve the discomfort. Of course, you could also take an over-the-counter antacid product. However, use baking soda and OTC antacids only for occasional heartburn. Studies show there are many negative side-effects of excessive or long-term use of OTC and prescription heartburn-relief products. Even the standard prescription drugs (PPIs) don’t work well for many.

Chronic Heartburn

If your heartburn has become chronic, seek help from your doctor; perhaps ask for a referral to a gastroenterologist. Medical experts say that chronic heartburn such as GERD—for which there’s no cure—generally require lifestyle adjustments and OTC or prescription medications, or occasionally even surgery. 

  • Alginates: Recent research investigating treatment with sodium alginates (suspensions of brown seaweed) have shown it to be as effective as PPIs for both GERD and LPR without the dangerous side effects. Once swallowed, these products create a thick gel that sits on top of the stomach, preventing the contents from being regurgitated, but allowing food and liquids to pass through. One of the strong, oral products (Gaviscon Advance or Reflux Gourmet, both made in and available in the U.S.) may work for you. Ask your doctor.

Pets and GERD

Yes, dogs and cats get GERD, too. Their symptoms are similar to those in humans, and vets treat them in similar ways. Speak with your vet if you suspect that Fluffy and Fido have acid reflux.

*Caution: If you have a sudden onset of pain in your chest, or strong pain that subsides and then returns, seek medical attention immediately. Heartburn symptoms can mimic or accompany other serious medical conditions, including a heart attack. As with any new, unusual symptoms or health condition, if you have concerns about new or worsening heartburn, check in with your doctor.

Got a stomach ache? We also have natural remedies to relieve that funny tummy.

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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