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What is heartburn, and what can you do about it?

Heartburn is the most common gastrointestinal disorder of the developed world, with up to 25% of adults suffering from an attack from time to time.

So what causes it and what can we do about it?

What is heartburn?

Heartburn occurs when acid from your stomach leaks back up the oesophagus – the long, muscular tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. The walls of the oesophagus don’t have the same lining as the stomach, so they are irritated by the acid, causing that all too familiar burning sensation.

Many people assume that heartburn is caused by an excess of stomach acid, but this is pretty rare. More likely, it’s down to a faulty valve at the top of the stomach. When operating normally, the valve prevents the acid leaking upwards from the stomach, but if the valve is too weak this can lead to acid coming up into, or ‘refluxing’ into, the oesophagus which in turn can cause the symptoms of heartburn.

While people often blame spicy foods, these don’t actually cause heartburn, although they can aggravate the symptoms. Fatty foods are more likely to lead to an attack as they sit in the stomach for longer and increase the chances of acid spilling into the oesophagus.


Since heartburn affects so many people in the western hemisphere, it’s no surprise that antacids are one of the best-selling drugs in the world.

These work by either neutralising the acid in the stomach or reducing the amount of acid produced. While they are highly effective, specialists worry that they’re commonly overused and can lead to further stomach problems.

A better long-term strategy is to lose weight and avoid fatty foods that can trigger an attack.

However, if your heartburn persists, acid reflux may not be the cause, so it’s best to go and see your doctor.

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