If you’ve ever enjoyed a hearty meal, only to find yourself plagued by a burning sensation in your chest and throat, you’re not alone. More than 60 million U.S. adults experience heartburn at least once a month. And while it’s generally not a cause for concern, if your symptoms are persistent, they could be a sign of something more serious.
Keep reading to learn the difference between heartburn and more serious gastrointestinal conditions–plus 10 natural remedies to help ease your symptoms.
What is heartburn?
Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux. Acid reflux is a condition where digestive acids and/or food flow back up the esophagus from the stomach, causing discomfort.
How does heartburn feel?
Most commonly, heartburn feels like a burning sensation in the chest or throat, but it can also cause other uncomfortable symptoms.
Other heartburn symptoms may include:
- A sour taste in the mouth
- Trouble swallowing
- Feeling like food is stuck in your throat
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Sore throat or hoarse voice
How long does heartburn last?
An episode of heartburn can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, but varies from person to person. However, if you experience frequent heartburn, or your symptoms last for more than a few hours, it may be a sign of a more serious condition such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
How can you tell if it’s heartburn or something else?
Heartburn or GERD
GERD is a condition causing chronic heartburn. It involves stomach acid and food flowing back into the esophagus on a regular basis.
While most people with GERD have mild symptoms, if left untreated, it can lead to esophageal damage, which can make it difficult to swallow or cause food to get stuck in the esophagus.
GERD shows up differently for each individual, but common symptoms include:
- Persistent heartburn, often after eating or when lying down
- Regurgitation, or food or sour liquid coming back into the mouth or throat
- Feeling as though food is stuck in your throat or chest
- Persistent coughing, especially at night
- Pain or discomfort in the chest, which can be mistaken for a heart attack
- Hoarseness or sore throat
- Nausea or vomiting after meals, especially if the meal was large or contained fatty or spicy foods
If you have any of the above symptoms, you may need more intensive treatment than a heartburn home remedy. “GERD is more than simple heartburn,” says Ceciel T. Rooker, Executive Director of the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD). “If you suspect that you may have GERD, schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional.”
Heartburn or heart attack
Heartburn can sometimes be mistaken for other conditions, such as a heart attack. It’s crucial to know the difference between the two so you can get the right treatment.
Heartburn usually occurs after a meal, and the pain is usually confined to the chest or throat. It can be relieved by antacids or other home remedies, and it doesn’t usually cause other symptoms.
A heart attack, on the other hand, usually causes chest pain that spreads to the arm, neck, or jaw, as well as other symptoms. If you experience any of the following, call 911 or seek medical attention immediately:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of your chest that lasts for several minutes or comes and goes
- Pain or discomfort in your arms (or one arm)
- Pain in your back, neck, jaw, or stomach
- Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
- Profuse sweating
- Nausea or dizziness
Prevention and fast-acting heartburn relief home remedies
Here are some heartburn home remedies to help you prevent flare-ups and/or get quick relief:
1. Eating smaller, more frequent meals
Larger meals can trigger heartburn, so try spreading out your food intake throughout the day. And avoid late-night meals to give your body time to digest properly.
2. Avoiding spicy and fatty foods
Spicy foods contain capsaicin, a chemical that slows down digestion and makes food stay in your stomach longer. This increases your chances of getting heartburn. Spicy foods can also irritate the esophagus, making symptoms even more uncomfortable.
Fatty foods can cause heartburn in two ways. Firstly, they can trigger the release of bile salts in the digestive tract, which can irritate the esophagus. Second, they can stimulate the release of cholecystokinin, a hormone that relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter (a muscle at the bottom of the esophagus) and allows stomach contents to flow back upward.
Avoid high-fat foods like french fries, fried fish and chicken, and opt instead for grilled or baked lean meats and boiled, roasted, or steamed vegetables.
3. Limiting alcohol and caffeine intake
Research shows both coffee and alcohol can worsen acid reflux by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter, increasing the risk of heartburn. So limit your consumption, or avoid these beverages altogether.
4. Chewing gum after meals
Chewing gum increases saliva production, clearing any acidity in the mouth and reducing acid in the esophagus.
5. Elevating your head in bed to reduce nighttime symptoms
If you have heartburn at night, multiple studies have shown that elevating your head by about eight inches in bed can help by decreasing esophageal exposure to acid and increasing acid clearance. You can simply place a few books under the head of your mattress to prop it up, or get yourself a wedge pillow.
Milk contains essential nutrients like calcium and protein that can provide fast-acting heartburn relief. However, the fat content of whole milk can also stimulate the production of stomach acid, so it may not be effective for everyone.
Try drinking a glass of nonfat milk or eating a small amount of yogurt or cheese to help with your symptoms. Or try goat’s milk, which is easier to digest than cow’s milk for many people.
7. Baking soda for heartburn
Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is naturally alkaline, so it neutralizes stomach acid and provides quick relief from heartburn. Mix 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda in a glass of water and sip slowly. You should only use this remedy occasionally to avoid side effects like stomach cramps and diarrhea.
While more research is needed to determine ginger’s anti-inflammatory effects on the esophagus, studies show it safely and effectively alleviates occasional nausea and/or vomiting.
Steep some freshly sliced ginger in hot water or try a ginger tea, sipping slowly. Or you can try a supplement offering between 200–2,000 mg of ginger.
9. Aloe vera
Aloe vera has a soothing effect on the lining of the esophagus and may improve digestion. A 2015 study showed it may reduce the occurrence of GERD symptoms as well as conventional medications without causing side effects.
Drink 2 fluid ounces of pure aloe vera juice 20 minutes before meals to help prevent heartburn.
10. Slippery elm
Slippery elm is an herbal supplement that can help coat and soothe inflamed tissue in the lining of the esophagus, while acting as a barrier against acidity.
Take one tablespoon of powdered slippery elm bark in water or tea up to three times per day. Or you can take 400 to 500 mg in capsule form up to three times daily.
Have sudden heartburn that won’t go away?
Heartburn can often be managed with lifestyle changes and natural remedies. But if your symptoms persist or worsen, it may be an indication of a more serious condition.
Consulting with your healthcare provider can help you explore long-term treatment options and distinguish between heartburn and other conditions that require medical further attention. By understanding these differences, you can make informed decisions about when to seek help.