Heartburn is extremely uncomfortable and it's not always clear what causes it. Some people blame spicy foods, eating too fast or too slow, while others cite grapefruits, oranges and other acidic foods as the troublemakers.
Immediate heartburn relief
As soon as you feel the telltale flicker of heartburn, drink a large glass of water. It will wash the acid back down your oesophagus into your stomach.
To make a heartburn-easing tea, add a teaspoon of freshly grated root ginger to a cup of boiling water, steep for 10 minutes, then drink. Used to quell the nausea caused by motion sickness, ginger also helps to relax the muscles that line the walls of the oesophagus, so stomach acid does not rise upwards.
A tea made from anise, caraway, peppermint or fennel seed can also ease the burn, according to herbalists. Add 2 teaspoons of any one of these to a cup of boiling water, allow to infuse for 10 minutes, strain and drink.
Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional medicine of India, prescribe teas made from crushed cinnamon or cardamom to cool the heat of heartburn. Add a teaspoon of either crushed or powdered herb to a cup of boiling water, steep, then strain and drink.
Natural heartburn remedies
Saliva helps to neutralise stomach acid. So chew a piece of sugar-free gum, suck on a boiled sweet or daydream about juicy steaks or buttery new potatoes – whatever it takes to get you to generate and swallow extra saliva.
The juices of vegetables such as carrots, cucumbers, radishes or beetroot help to tame the acid in the stomach due to their alkaline nature. Feel free to add a pinch of salt and pepper for flavour. If juicing vegetables is inconvenient or doesn't appeal to you, just eat some raw vegetables.
Bicarbonate of soda is alkaline, so it neutralises stomach acid. Mix half a teaspoon bicarb and a few drops lemon juice in a small cup of warm water. Don't drink the diluted bicarb on its own: lemon juice dispels some of the gas that bicarb creates in the stomach when it comes into contact with stomach acid.
Marshmallow root is a well-known remedy for heartburn. The plant produces a gooey, starchy substance called mucilage, which coats and protects the mucous membranes of your oesophagus. Stir a teaspoon of powdered marshmallow root into a cup of water and sip. Drink 3 or 4 cups a day. Slippery elm has a similar effect.
Try liquorice tea, or liquorice tablets or capsules, help soothe the stomach and prevent heartburn. Liquorice's essential oil also stimulates the flow of digestive juices.
Try taking bitters. These herbal digestive tonics have been used for centuries in Europe as a remedy for heartburn. Examples of herbs commonly included are dandelion, gentian, fennel, wormwood and goldenseal. The usual dose is half to 1 teaspoon in warm water about 15 minutes before eating.
Homeopathy can help. Nux vomica is the remedy most often prescribed for heartburn. Clinical trials prove it is most effective for the type of indigestion and heartburn that is the direct result of eating too much rich or fatty food.
Food and drinks to avoid that cause heartburn
If you're prone to heartburn, certain foods and drinks are best avoided. Try to limit or cut out at least some of the following foods and beverages:
- Beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks tend to relax the lower oesophageal sphincter, the important valve between your stomach and lower oesophagus. Peppermint, spearmint and tomatoes have the same effect.
- Milk may feel soothing as you swallow it, but the fats, proteins and calcium it contains can stimulate the stomach to secrete more acid.
- Coffee, tea and cola are caffeinated drinks that relax the lower oesophageal sphincter, and can irritate an inflamed oesophagus.
- Chocolate is loaded with two heartburn triggers – fat and caffeine.
- The carbonation in fizzy drinks can expand your stomach, which has the same effect on the lower oesophageal sphincter as overeating.
- Fried and fatty foods tend to sit in the stomach for a long time, where they can cause excess acid production.
- Citrus fruits and juices are acidic – though their acid content is bland compared to your stomach acid, and may not be a problem.
How to prevent heartburn
Stay upright. When you stand, gravity keeps the acid in your stomach. Avoid bending over after a meal, and don't lie down.
Eat meals at least 2 to 3 hours before you go to bed. This will give acid levels a chance to decrease before you lie down.
You might also raise the head of your bed 10-15cm with large wooden blocks or old phone books. When you sleep tilted at an angle, gravity helps to keep acid in the stomach.
Try sleeping on your left side. When you lie on your left side, the stomach hangs down and fluids pool along the greater curvature, away from the lower oesophageal sphincter. Pooled fluids thus stay further away from the oesophagus.
Eat smaller, more frequent meals to minimise the production of stomach acid. And avoid eating too much in one sitting; doing so can force open the lower oesophageal sphincter, the thick ring of muscle that separates the stomach from the oesophagus and keeps stomach acid where it belongs.
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