Almost everyone has experienced the occasional bout of heartburn—i.e., that "burning" feeling that flares up in the chest, particularly after a big meal. And for most people, heartburn (or acid reflux) is usually no big deal.
Other times, however, heartburn can be a symptom of a more serious condition called gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), which affects about 20 percent of people in the United States, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
"When heartburn occurs infrequently after a heavy meal and is short-lived, it's usually not [a chronic problem]," says Saleem Chowdhry, MD, a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. "However, if it is experienced occasionally—more than once or twice a week—and at nighttime, then it would warrant further evaluation."
Specifically, heartburn occurs when a person's stomach contents back up into their esophagus (the tube that connects the throat to the stomach); over time, it's possible for acid reflux to damage the esophageal lining, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
What's more, GERD can cause complications like inflammation in the esophagus, respiratory problems (including asthma, a sore throat, and laryngitis), or an esophageal stricture (a narrowing of the esophagus that can make it more difficult to swallow)—so if you're experiencing symptoms of the condition, it's important to seek treatment for it.
If you do have GERD, your doctor might suggest making certain changes to your diet or medication regimen, which could help alleviate the symptoms. Here are seven sneaky causes of acid reflux.
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1. Too-tight clothing:
If you've cinched your belt too tightly or opted for pants that are a size too small, you could be setting yourself up for heartburn. Clothes that are too constricting around the waist can put pressure on your stomach, causing food to reflux back into the esophagus.
Stomach acid is highly acidic—it has a pH of about 1.5 to 3.5, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. And tomatoes are also acidic, which can further increase the stomach's acidity and trigger reflux, says Dr. Chowdhry.
3. Cigarette smoke:
Smoking can cause a laundry list of health problems—including heartburn. That's because the chemicals in cigarettes and tobacco products can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter, the band of muscle that prevents food and stomach acid from backing up into the esophagus.
Certain antidepressants can cause the lower esophageal sphincter to relax, allowing the stomach contents to flow back into the esophagus, says Dr. Chowdhry. Other medications, including beta-blockers for heart disease and calcium channel blockers for high blood pressure, can cause heartburn, too. If you suspect one of your meds is causing your acid reflux, call your doctor— and don't stop taking your medication unless you've talked to your provider first.
Caffeine is an irritant that can stimulate the stomach to produce more acid, says Dr. Chowdhry. Plus, it also relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter. Keep in mind that coffee isn't the only source of caffeine—it can also be found in tea, chocolate, candies, and more.
6. Citrus foods:
It's not entirely clear how citruses like lemons and oranges can cause heartburn, but some experts blame the foods' high-acidity levels, says Dr. Chowdhry. The more citrus foods you eat at a time, the more likely they may be to cause heartburn, he adds.
7. Being overweight:
Extra weight can put extra pressure on the stomach, triggering reflux. The U.S. National Library of Medicine says that overweight people who lose 10 to 15 pounds can sometimes alleviate the symptoms of GERD altogether.
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