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Heartburn, sour stomach, indigestion— whatever you call it, it's still the same acidy, sour, unsettling feeling that occurs during or after a meal.
There you are, sitting with your family and enjoying a celebration dinner at the best restaurant in town. As you blow out the candle and dip into the ice cream surprise, you suddenly feel a pang. Ouch! The bitter, queasy taste of heartburn hits. You say your excuses and go off to the bathroom, silently berating yourself for eating that shallot, hot pepper, and garlic sauce.
It might not happen exactly that way, but when heartburn hits, it knows no bounds, no excuses, and no options.
The Ins and Outs of Heartburn
More than 40 million Americans suffer from heartburn on occasion, that sour feeling that occurs when stomach acid splashes back up into the esophagus.
At the point where the esophagus and the stomach meet is a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This muscle acts like a trap door, opening to let food into the stomach, then closing up tight to prevent the food from coming out.
There are certain actions that can irritate and reopen the LES, spilling stomach acid back into the esophagus and creating heartburn. These include:
- Eating spicy, fatty, sour, or minty foods that don't agree with you
- Overindulging during a meal
- Being overweight
- Drinking too much coffee or alcohol
- Smoking cigarettes
- Taking some medications, including unbuffered aspirin
- Wearing belts and waistbands that are too tight
- Being pregnant
- Taking birth control pills
Although heartburn is a common ailment, it can also signal something more serious: a heart attack. Many people who come into an emergency room with what they think is simply a bad case of indigestion could be having more serious problems. If you feel an intense, unrelenting bout of heartburn, go to a doctor—fast!
Taking over-the-counter antacids is the most common treatment for heartburn—and, unless you are taking a medication that contradicts the alkaline in antacids—they usually work fast.
However, today there are also preventative medications on the market that not only neutralize the acid that creeps back up, but reduce the amount of acid that is made. These include the two best-selling prescription medications, Tagamet and Zantac (which are now sold over-the-counter). These medications block acid in your stomach and are successful for people with ulcers.
Both Tagamet and Zantac are called H2 Antagonists. You can get milder forms of these medications as well. These milder over-the-counter pills need to be taken an hour before a spicy meal to be effective.
However, these medications need time to work and if you are having an attack of indigestion or heartburn now, the best bet is still an antacid.
You can also try to prevent heartburn with non-medication treatment tricks. Here are some suggestions:
- Eat several small meals during the day instead of three big ones.
- Avoid spicy food, alcohol, coffee, and any other foods that can irritate your digestive tract.
- Eat your last meal several hours before you go to sleep. (This gives your body a chance to completely digest the food.)
- Eat slowly and put the fork down between bites. (This too helps you digest foods more easily.)
- Sleep with your head and upper torso raised about six inches. A foam wedge works well.
- Learn to relax. The less stress you feel, the better your entire body will work.