The Truth About Heartburn (Pyrosis)

You’ll probably have heard of heartburn already, and it’s fairly common, so you may have felt it, too! Pyrosis is just the medical term that health professionals use to describe the problem.

People unfortunate enough to experience recurrent, severe heartburn can develop gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD).

The hell of heartburn

Heartburn really has nothing to do with the heart, but we call it that because the sensation is of an unpleasant burning tingle right over that part of the chest, just behind the breastbone. Sometimes, it can start lower down in the abdomen and move further upwards to the neck and jawline.

For most people, heartburn is a fairly mild discomfort that comes after eating. But for a few, the pain can be hard to distinguish from a heart attack.

There are other, unappealing effects of heartburn. Some people find themselves regurgitating small amounts of stomach contents into the back of their mouths. In those who experience heartburn regularly, trouble swallowing food (dysphagia) can become a problem, or they may develop long-term respiratory problems.

Why me?

This is what happens when you get heartburn:
• After you swallow, food travels down your oesophagus into your stomach where acid breaks it down.
• A “trapdoor” muscle called a sphincter usually holds the stomach contents inside the stomach, but sometimes this doesn’t work properly.
• If this is the case, digested food and stomach acid can travel back up the oesophagus, which isn’t protected against the acid.
• The burning sensation that results is called heartburn.

Feeling stressed? Surprisingly, our digestive system is closely connected to our brain by the vagus nerve. This means that the behaviour of our stomach is also governed by our mental state. If you’re under emotional pressure or experiencing anxiety, it can stimulate this nerve to churn up the stomach.

It’s also very common for pregnant women to experience heartburn, even if they’ve never had it before in their lives. This is thanks to hormonal changes, the relaxing of muscles (including the oesophageal sphincter) and the pressure of the growing womb on the stomach.

Plugging the pyrosis problem

There are some well-known triggers for heartburn, including foods such as chocolate, peppermint, onions, citrus fruits, high-fat foods, caffeine and alcohol. So try cutting back on these first.

How you position yourself after eating also matters. Don’t lie on your back or side, and don’t bend over or strain yourself straight after a meal. Keep your abdomen free of any external pressure.

Being overweight is a risk factor, as is smoking cigarettes because nicotine can weaken the sphincter muscle. Doing something about both of these things might help ease your symptoms.

Over-the-counter remedies can be really effective if all else fails. Antacids neutralise stomach acid and alginates produce a coating that protects the lining of the oesophagus. For people with more serious symptoms, doctors often prescribe drugs such as proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) and H2-receptor antagonists (H2RAs) or can even carry out corrective surgery.

In short, there’s no need to live with heartburn!