Self-Care Tips for Soothing Heartburn
If you're one of the 15 to 20% of Americans who have heartburn at least once a week, self-care can really help. In fact, some simple lifestyle changes may be all you need to control mild heartburn.
The valve where your esophagus meets your stomach opens to let food and drink move into your stomach. It then closes to keep stomach juices from flowing backwards into the esophagus. Those juices contain a lot of acid. The valve protects your esophagus from that acid. Sometimes the valve—the lower esophageal sphincter (LES)—becomes too relaxed or weakens. It lets stomach juices seep up into the esophagus. The lining of the esophagus is sensitive. When acid hits it, you get that burning sensation in your chest called heartburn. Long-term esophageal exposure to stomach acid can lead to painful inflammation (esophagitis), precancerous changes to the lining (Barrett esophagus), and even esophageal cancer.
Here are some simple things you can do to keep stomach acid where it belongs—in your stomach.
Avoid Trigger Foods
Some foods and drinks weaken the LES. This makes heartburn more likely. So, if heartburn is a problem for you, try to avoid:
Coffee, especially caffeinated coffee
Citrus fruits and juices
Peppermint and spearmint
Take Pressure Off Your Belly
Anything that puts pressure on the LES from below can lead to heartburn. Increased pressure on your belly, for instance, is one common cause of heartburn. To reduce belly pressure:
Avoid eating big meals. Instead, eat smaller meals more often.
Avoid tight-fitting clothing or loosen your belt.
Don’t lie down for three hours after eating.
Don't bend or lift after eating.
Don't exercise after eating.
If you are overweight, lose the extra pounds.
Take Care When You Sleep
Lying flat for a long time is a big challenge for your LES. If your worst heartburn comes at night, the first rule is to stop eating at least three hours before bedtime. The more food you have in your stomach when you go to bed, the higher your risk for heartburn.
Try these other tips:
Don't sleep with a pile of pillows under your head. That actually increases pressure on your stomach.
Raise the head of your bed. Put 6-inch blocks under the bedposts. This will get gravity working for you.
Sleep on your left side. Your esophagus enters your stomach on your right side. So, sleeping on your left side prevents upward pressure on the LES.
Try Over-the-Counter Medicines
You have many over-the-counter (OTC) heartburn medicines to choose from. Some help when heartburn strikes. Others can prevent heartburn. For instance:
OTC antacids change the acids in stomach juices. The best time to take an antacid is one hour after you eat. That's when acid production is highest. Taking an antacid at bedtime may prevent heartburn at night.
H2 blockers work by decreasing acid production. Many of these are now available OTC. They take an hour or so to bring relief, but work longer than antacids.
Herbal remedies that may help heartburn include licorice, slippery elm powder, marshmallow herb, and chamomile tea.
It's always a good idea to check with your doctor before using any OTC drugs or herbal medications.
A final tip is to reduce or avoid stress. Stress can make heartburn worse. However, resist trying to relieve stress by smoking or drinking. Both of those activities relax the LES, and that can increase heartburn.
If you've tried self-care for heartburn but still struggle with it two or more times a week, talk to your doctor. You may need more help. There are good prescription drugs for severe heartburn. Plus, some health conditions cause heartburn, so you may need treatment for those.
Self-care steps can relieve most cases of mild heartburn.
Try lifestyle changes like avoiding foods that relax your LES and not eating before bed.
You have many OTC medications to choose from to cool heartburn, but talk to your doctor if they fail to help you.