If your stomach feels bloated or your intestines feel too full, it may be because you have a problem with acid in your digestive system. Stomach acid is an important part of the digestive process and helps break down food so that you can absorb the nutrients from it.
When stomach acid is produced and released into the intestines, it helps the food move through your digestive system smoothly. It also helps prevent your digestive tract from becoming irritated by any unwanted bacteria or toxins in food.
But sometimes the amount of stomach acid produced by the body isn’t just right; too much can irritate tissues in your esophagus (the tube that connects to the throat), upper intestinal tract (stomach and small intestine), and colon (large intestine).
If this happens, you may experience symptoms like heartburn, burning pain, a bitter taste in your mouth, bloating or gas, frequent burping or belching, constipation or diarrhea, and cramps. This unpleasant condition is called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
If you’re having heartburn, frequent acid reflux, or gas problems that last for more than 2 days, see your doctor find out whether you have GERD.
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Understanding the Causes of Heartburn & Acid Reflux
The cause of heartburn and acid reflux is the stomach’s inability to control the amount of acid produced by it in response to specific stimuli such as food. There are a few factors that can cause this problem:
Excessive levels of certain hormones called _prostaglandins_ (made in your stomach and other tissues) can cause more acid to be produced than is needed. One type of prostaglandin causes the lining of your stomach to swell; when this occurs, your esophagus (the tube leading from the throat to the stomach) may become swollen and irritated by food or liquid moving back up into it.
This swelling may be due to the natural production of prostaglandins by your body, but it may also be caused by using certain medicines that increase the levels of these hormones in your body.
Certain foods or drinks can increase the amount of acid produced by your stomach. Examples include carbonated beverages (which contain sugar and other ingredients that stimulate the production of more acid), caffeine, and alcohol.
In addition to eating foods or drinking beverages that affect how much stomach acid you produce, stress can also cause heartburn and acid reflux because it causes your muscles to tense up and create an esophageal sphincter (the muscle that keeps food from moving back up into your esophagus). This tightness can cause a narrowing in your esophagus, which then prevents some food from moving through. The less pressure on this muscle, the less likely you are to have heartburn or acid reflux problems.
Poor lifestyle choices
Smoking, drinking alcohol, and taking drugs or other medications can also increase the risk of heartburn and acid reflux. In addition to being bad for your overall health, these substances can actually irritate your esophagus and cause it to produce more stomach acid.
The extra weight you gain can create pressure on your abdominal muscles and spine, causing them to shorten and tighten. This creates a narrowing in your esophagus that can then cause food or liquid to back up into it.
Making Your Way Through Heartburn & Acid Reflux
There are many ways you may be able to help prevent heartburn or acid reflux problems from becoming chronic or severe. These include:
Quitting smoking may reduce the amount of stomach acid produced by your body, which may help you avoid some heartburn and acid reflux problems if you’re a smoker.
Modifying your diet
Avoiding foods or beverages that may trigger heartburn and acid reflux may help you to reduce your risk of developing these problems.
Getting enough exercise
Exercise can help prevent many health problems, and it may also reduce the amount of acid produced by your stomach. This in turn can reduce the symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux.
Taking medications for heartburn or acid reflux
Many medications are available to help control or treat these conditions. However, some medications can cause other health problems, so talk with your doctor about whether they’re right for you.
Knowing when to call a doctor
Heartburn is common among people who’ve recently eaten a large meal; it usually clears up within several hours as your body begins to digest food normally again. If heartburn lasts longer than three days, however, then you need medical attention because it could be a sign that you have GERD(gastroesophageal reflux disease), which is discussed in length in “Knowing what GERD is”.
The difference between heartburn and acid reflux
Heartburn and acid reflux are similar in that they’re both caused by stomach acids moving back up into your esophagus. However, these two conditions are different from each other.
Heartburn is not a disease; it’s just a symptom of GERD. Heartburn happens when food moves backward into the esophagus (the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach). This food is then regurgitated back up into your mouth so you can chew it.
Acid reflux occurs when stomach juices move backward into your _stomach. Food that becomes acidic during digestion usually passes through the small intestine before reaching the large intestine, but when there’s an excess amount of acid produced by the stomach, it can pass back up into the stomach and move back into your esophagus.
Treating heartburn and acid reflux
If you have heartburn or acid reflux, try to avoid the following habits:
- Avoid lying down for at least 15 minutes after a meal (and up to an hour if you’re not hungry).
- Don’t lie down right after eating.
- Don’t eat a big meal for breakfast or lunch. Try eating a light snack such as an apple instead.
- Avoid drinking coffee, tea, cola drinks, and carbonated beverages after meals because they can increase the amount of stomach acid that moves backward into your esophagus. These drinks also contain caffeine, which can stimulate your nervous system and may lead to heartburn symptoms.
- If you’re pregnant (or think you might be), don’t eat foods with spices that contain capsaicin (the chemical compound that gives chili peppers their hot flavor). Capsaicin can cause irritation of the esophagus, which can lead to heartburn symptoms.
If your heartburn or acid reflux is bothersome, try the following treatments:
Try an antacid: These medications are a common treatment for acid reflux. They work by neutralizing stomach acids that move back into your esophagus. However, they don’t cure GERD; they only relieve the symptoms. If you have frequent heartburn or acid reflux and need to take antacids on a regular basis, talk to your doctor about other possible treatments for your condition.
Ask your doctor if an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine such as albuterol (Proventil) or pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) can help ease your symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux. These medications can be used in combination with other treatments if necessary.