Holy heartburn! Sixty million Americans feel the burn at least once a month, and some studies report that more than 15 million Americans have symptoms every day. Research suggests that those numbers will continue to climb—likely due to the country’s growing obesity problem (more on how excess pounds can trigger the burn later).
Heartburn, a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), occurs when stomach acid flows backward into the esophagus. “The stomach has a protective lining to shield itself from the acid,” explains Lisa Ganjhu, DO, a gastroenterologist and clinical associate professor of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center. “The esophagus doesn’t, so acid can literally burn it.”
The exact sensation of heartburn varies from person to person, but the most common symptom is severe burning or discomfort in the chest just behind the breastbone. Anything that increases stomach acid, relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter muscle (LES, the “valve” that keeps stomach acid in the stomach), or decreases the contraction of the esophagus will contribute to GERD. (Heal your whole body with Rodale’s 12-day liver detox for total body health!)
Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to put out the fire. Antacids (which neutralize stomach acid) and medications such as H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which reduce gastric acid production, are all available in OTC and Rx versions. But lifestyle changes and other drug-free measures can go a long way toward keeping the burn at bay.