People often eat too much, with many of us suffering from heartburn. What causes this uncomfortable sensation?
That burning feeling you get in the middle of your chest when you've eaten too much is a symptom of heartburn. Gastroenterologist Hidekazu Suzuki, a professor at Keio University, says it is caused by "the contents of the stomach mixed with stomach acid being regurgitated into the esophagus." Some people also experience nausea and a sour taste at the back of their throat.
The stomach produces stomach acid in order to digest food. While it is a strong acid, the stomach has built-in protection from it so that the stomach doesn't suffer from irritation. But the esophagus is relatively unprotected, and becomes inflamed when it comes into contact with stomach acid.
One cause of acid reflux is an overabundance of stomach acid. When we eat too many protein rich or fatty foods like meat or fried items - or just eat too much in general - an excessive amount of stomach acid is secreted.
Another cause is weakness in the boundary between the stomach and the esophagus, also called the lower esophageal sphincter. This muscle keeps the esophagus closed off from the stomach at all times, other than when food needs to pass through, thus stopping acid from going up into the esophagus. However, drinking alcohol or eating too much fatty food can impair its function, leading to acid reflux.
Being overweight or having poor posture can put pressure on the stomach, making it easier for acid to move up the esophagus. Going to bed shortly after eating can also lead to reflux because the acid the body creates to digest the food you just ate can move up the esophagus more easily when you are lying down.
One way to deal with heartburn is to stay hydrated while waiting for the stomach to empty. "To get rid of heartburn quickly, taking an over-the-counter gastrointestinal drug is also an option," Suzuki says. These medicines contain ingredients that can reinforce the stomach lining or temporarily neutralize stomach acid.
It is important to be cautious if you have frequent cases of heartburn. The lining of the esophagus becomes inflamed and can lead to esophagitis. It is a debilitating disorder that can decrease work productivity and quality of life. In order to treat it, continued use of medication that reduces the excretion of stomach acid is necessary.
Heartburn can also be a symptom of more serious conditions such as stomach ulcers, duodenal ulcers, esophageal cancer or stomach cancer. Suzuki says that "if your symptoms persist, it is a good idea to have an endoscopy done."
Chew your food well
As a preventative measure for heartburn, Miyoko Honda, a registered dietitian and associate professor at Otemae University, strongly recommends making a habit of "eating until you are only 80 per cent full, chewing your food well, and cutting back on food high in fat and sugar."
Chewing food into smaller pieces reduces the amount of time it takes our stomachs to break it down, reducing the excessive secretion of stomach acid. The trick to proper chewing is pushing the food toward the teeth with your tongue to keep it from moving to the back of your mouth.
When eating meat, choosing leaner cuts like chicken breast or tenderloin and beef and pork thighs or fillets can help. Sweets like red bean paste and chocolate can cause excessive stomach acid, so it is a good idea to cut back on these foods.
It is also said that drinking alcohol increases appetite, so being careful not to eat too much when drinking is important. Not eating anything three hours before bed is also a good rule to live by.
In order to combat heartburn, Honda suggests "refraining from alcohol and eating foods that aid digestion like rice porridge, tofu, boiled daikon and Chinese cabbage to get stomach acid back under control."