It happens after a late-night meal, or after that particularly spicy dish from a new ethnic restaurant – the burning sensation in your chest.

We’ve all been there. One in four people has heartburn on a regular basis, and the estimates might be low since it only accounts for those who report issues to their doctor.

In 2020, Americans spent almost $5 billion on medications to alleviate their pain. But is there a way to avoid (or reduce) your encounters with heartburn?

> Suffering from heartburn? Connect with Hartford HealthCare’s Digestive Health Institute

What causes heartburn?

The esophageal sphincter is a muscular tube that lets food pass into the stomach and then cinches shut to block it from coming back up. It works to protect the esophagus from stomach acid.

However, if the sphincter relaxes, food can push upward through the loosened opening and cause acid reflux.

Getting to the bottom of it

If you experience frequent heartburn, says Jamie Allers, RD, with Hartford HealthCare’s Digestive Health Institute, paying attention to what you consume before an attack of heartburn is helpful. She also recommends noting when you eat and how often you eat.

“Often we might be aware of specific food triggers that instigate our heartburn but how, when and how often we eat can also play a role,” she says. “Small, frequent meals may be better tolerated, not eating too close to bedtime and slowing down when eating (chewing food well, eating mindfully) can also make a difference.”

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The usual suspects

Here are some foods that are known to trigger heartburn:

  • Spicy foods. Spicy foods contain capsaicin, which slows digestion and allows food to sit in the stomach longer. It also irritates the esophagus, worsening symptoms.
  • Fatty foods. Fat works to relax the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the muscle that forms a barrier between your esophagus and stomach. Foods with high-fat content can worsen acid reflux symptoms.
  • Caffeine. You probably won’t have any issues drinking a cup of coffee every morning if you suffer from heartburn. Multiple hits of caffeine-containing foods and drinks throughout the day can trigger an attack, however.
  • Peppermint. Peppermint soothes the sphincter muscle that lies between the stomach and esophagus, and so may increase your risk of experiencing heartburn.
  • Chocolate. Serotonin is released as a result of eating chocolate, which makes individuals happy. Serotonin not only makes you feel joyful but also relaxes your lower esophageal sphincter.
  • Carbonated drinks. Carbonated drinks expand the stomach. A swollen stomach puts more strain on the esophageal sphincter and encourages reflux.
  • Alcohol. Heartburn can be spurred by drinking wine, beer or your favorite cocktail, especially after a substantial meal. Alcohol relaxes the sphincter and gives acid free rein.

Many spicy foods contain capsaicin, which slows down digestion and causes food to sit in the stomach longer. The longer food is in the stomach, the more risk of you having heartburn. Second, spicy food can irritate the esophagus, which can worsen heartburn symptoms.

When to see a doctor

When heartburn is chronic, it may be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), an acid reflux condition. Left untreated, GERD can put you at risk for bleeding, ulcers and more.

A gastrointestinal doctor can diagnose GERD and prescribe medication that helps manage symptoms.