What Causes Acid Reflux and Heartburn

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, more commonly known as acid reflux, heartburn or GERD, occurs when food and stomach acid reverses from the stomach back into the esophagus. Usually the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES, acts as a one way valve and keeps food down where it belongs after you swallow.

Reflux in infants is common because a baby's LES is still weak, as the necessary muscles have not strengthened yet. Symptoms of acid reflux disease in adults include a burning sensation in the chest and throat or a bitter, puke-like flavor in the mouth. Some folks with frequent symptoms of acid reflux may produce an excess amount of stomach acid that spills over out of the stomach.

Some heartburn remedies simply involve a change in habits. Over-eating can cause acid reflux, which makes it a big problem around holidays.

"The holiday season is clearly one of the worst times of the year for patients with GERD," says William Chey, M.D., a University of Michigan gastroenterologist. "The large amounts of food we eat during the holidays, and the types of food served during the holidays - especially fatty and caffeinated foods - can be a recipe for disaster for chronic heartburn sufferers."

When we tuck away large amounts of food into the stomach, it stretches and the Lower Oesophageal Sphincter naturally relaxes. Instead of three big meals or one big meal, try eating smaller meals continuously throughout the day to keep acid production normalized.

If you are a chronic sufferer, there are some basic foods you should avoid as much as possible. Fatty, greasy food can be a big problem, since the stomach needs to produce more acid to break down these substances. You know where that excess acid winds up -- coming back up the esophagus! Less obvious culprits are caffeine in drinks such as tea and coffee, ice cream and chocolate, which may exacerbate heartburn acid reflux disease. Red wine is a frequent cause of heartburn too, as are spicy foods, alcohol, citrus fruits, tomatoes, spearmint and pepper.

The time of day and post-eating rituals, have a significant impact on heartburn and the risk of developing acid reflux. Dr. William Chey adds, "Gravity actually serves as an important barrier for acid reflux during the day. So when you lie down at night after eating a meal, you no longer have that gravity barrier to prevent acid reflux."

It is recommended that you try to remain relatively upright for two or three hours after eating. Folks who try lifting and bending immediately after eating a big meal typically have trouble with too. Avoid tight clothing that may worsen symptoms. Smoking also causes the esophagus valve to relax.

Acid reflux is a sneaky disease that comes on suddenly and requires immediate relief. Keeping some over-the-counter products like Alka-Seltzer, Tums, Pepcid AC or Maalox in the cabinet can usually treat the average heartburn symptoms. However, chronic sufferers should see their doctor and look into Proton Pump Inhibitors such as Prilosec or Nexium, which work by reducing stomach acid production. There is a lot of research that can be found online at WebMD.com to help folks gauge which medications are safe for them. However, often times, trial and error reveals the best treatment.

Acid reflux can be so uncomfortable that some folks go to the hospital, fearing heart failure. Others believe they may have food poisoning, asthma, a sleeping disorder or they have developed lactose intolerance. Isn't it comforting to know that it may just be a little bit of heartburn that can be treated with a number of over-the-counter medications?