When you swallow food, it travels down your throat to your esophagus into your stomach, which produces acid to help break it down so that it can be digested. Your lower esophageal sphincter, a muscle at the entrance to your stomach, is supposed to close after the food passes through to keep stomach acid from going into the esophagus. But if it doesn’t, and acid reaches the esophagus (along with food), you’ll feel a burning sensation. It usually starts just below your breastbone and can radiate into your throat. You might also notice a sour or bitter taste in your mouth or throat.
Occasional heartburn is generally not worrisome or dangerous, and can be relieved with diet and lifestyle changes and, if necessary, over-the-counter antacids or other medications. However, if you have heartburn twice a week or more, and it recurs for weeks or months, or if you frequently regurgitate food (with or without heartburn), consider seeing your doctor to be checked for GERD.
In contrast to occasional heartburn, GERD can be dangerous. Over time, the refluxed acid can inflame and erode the lining of the esophagus, resulting in esophagitis. You may feel a chronic soreness in your lower throat or chest. Most cases of esophagitis are relatively mild, but when it is left untreated, bleeding, scarring, and narrowing of the esophagus can occur, making eating and swallowing painful and difficult. People who have uncontrolled GERD for years have a higher risk of developing cancer of the esophagus, though it’s rare.
Fortunately, changes in your diet and lifestyle might be all you need to alleviate the problem. Those measures include eating smaller meals, not lying down for at least three hours after eating, losing weight if needed, and avoiding alcohol. Certain food and beverages can trigger heartburn in some people, such as citrus fruit, chocolate, coffee or other caffeinated beverages, fried food, garlic, onions, spicy or fatty food, and tomato-rich food, such as marinara sauce, salsa, and pizza.
Drinking alcoholic beverages may increase GERD symptoms, which over time can cause damage to the lining of the esophagus. Symptoms may resolve after you stop drinking. Smoking weakens the lower esophageal sphincter muscle and increases the risk of GERD (and other diseases), so if you smoke, you should quit.
To help reduce heartburn flare-ups while you’re asleep, try placing wood blocks beneath your bedposts to raise the head of your bed 6 to 8 inches. Avoid wearing tight clothing or belts that push on your abdomen, since compressing that area can contribute to reflux.