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Ease the Burn: 21 Tips to Relieve Nighttime Heartburn
By Katherine Solem
At the party last night, you downed a dozen spicy chicken wings, some garlic fries, a bowl of five-alarm chili and a couple beers. You wake up the next morning exhausted with a sore throat, burning sensation in your chest and sour taste in your mouth. Never again, you tell yourself as you reach into the medicine cabinet. You've been burned, "heartburned" that is.
Heartburn, which occurs when the valve (sphincter) between the esophagus and the stomach becomes weak or relaxed allowing stomach acid to back up into the esophagus, can cause a burning sensation in the chest and throat, nausea, a bitter taste in the mouth and other unpleasant symptoms. Heartburn symptoms can be brought on by spicy and fried foods, alcohol and going to bed on a full stomach, among other things. A pretty accurate summary of your culinary adventures last night.
Approximately 50 million people — or more than 75 percent of all frequent heartburn sufferers — experience nighttime heartburn, according to a 2003 Gallup survey sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association.
Nighttime heartburn is nothing to ignore. Here are 21 simple ways to avoid heartburn.
- Say no to spice. Spicy foods are common heartburn triggers.
- Forget fried and fatty food. These foods can be hard to digest and trigger heartburn symptoms. Plus, they lead to weight gain, another reflux risk factor.
- Whittle your middle. Extra weight, especially around the middle, puts extra pressure on the esophageal sphincter which can cause heartburn. (Pressure placed on the mother's stomach by her growing baby is part of why heartburn is a common pregnancy symptom. Track your pregnancy symptoms with MedHelp's free pregnancy tracker.)
- Don't go to bed on a full stomach. Having a full stomach can make it more likely that stomach acid will back up into your esophagus. Stop all food and beverage (with the exception of water) within three hours of bedtime.
- Downsize your portions. Eat smaller, more frequent meals to ease pressure on your stomach and sphincter. This type of eating can also help you lose weight.
- Be a lefty. Studies show that lying on your left side helps promote digestion which helps to empty the stomach faster as compared to lying on your right side or back when you sleep.
- Sleep on a slope. Prop up the top of your bed with blocks or books so that your head, shoulders and upper back are about six inches higher than your stomach. Or use a wedge-shaped pillow under your mattress — but putting an extra pillow just under your head won't work.
- Be a teetotaler. Drinking alcohol increases heartburn by causing the esophageal muscles to relax and may also irritate the mucus membrane of the esophagus.
- Skip the soda. Carbonated beverages have very high acidity levels. Soda consumption has been linked to a higher risk of heartburn.
- Keep a food journal. Citrus fruits, tomatoes, chocolate and peppermint- and spearmint-flavored foods may all cause heartburn symptoms. However specific foods triggers vary from person to person. To find out what sets off your heartburn, start writing down everything you eat and drink and when you experience symptoms. (Track your heartburn symptoms using MedHelp's free Gastro Tracker and log your foods in MedHelp's free MedHelp's free food diary.)
- Eat slowly. In certain cultures, there is the saying that it should take as long to eat a meal as it took to prepare it. If that's not possible, try to make your meal last at least 15 minutes. This will aid in digestion and help prevent you from overeating.
- Drink a glass of water with meals to help reduce the amount you eat and assist with digestion.
- Loosen up. Avoid tight-fitting clothing, especially at night. Tight belts, waistbands, pantyhose and body contouring undergarments can press on your stomach, triggering heartburn. Wear loose-fitting pj's.
- Stress less. Chronic or high stress may increase stomach acid production.
- Chew gum. Chewing gum 30 minutes after a meal has been found to help relieve heartburn symptoms. Chewing gum boosts the production of saliva, which neutralizes stomach acid.
- Check your Rx. Certain medications can trigger heartburn, even in those who never had it before. Talk to your doctor if you suspect your medication is triggering heartburn.
- Butt out. Smoking can cause the esophageal sphincter to relax which lets stomach acid leak into the esophagus. It also increases acid secretion, damages protective mucus membranes, and decreases saliva production; saliva helps neutralize stomach acid.
- Get out the big guns. For occasional heartburn, over-the-counter antacids usually do the trick. But for more chronic or severe heartburn symptoms, it may be time to try stronger heartburn drugs like acid blockers (Pepcid®, Tagamet® or Zantac®) or proton pump inhibitors (Nexium®, Prevacid® or Prilosec®).
- Pop a pill prophylactically. If you know that you're going to eat or drink something that typically triggers heartburn, take an acid reducer or other heartburn drug right before as a preventive measure. Or take a pill at the first sign of symptoms.
- Walk it off. Going for a walk after dinner will help speed digestion so you don't go to bed on a full stomach.
- Say no to joe. Both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee increases stomach acid secretion. If you can't cut out coffee completely, reduce how much you drink.
Katherine Solem is a health writer and editor living in San Francisco.