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Heartburn has become such a generic term that you’ll hear people attribute it to everything from a big meal to bad news. But despite the myths and lore, heartburn is a real medical condition worth paying attention to…and it generally has nothing to do with the heart.

About 20 percent of Americans suffer from heartburn each week, which is caused by irritation of the esophagus due to stomach acid. This creates an uncomfortable burning sensation in the upper abdomen or below the breastbone.

A muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) keeps stomach acid where it should be with the help of gravity. If the LES either opens too frequently or doesn’t close tightly enough, stomach acid can seep into the esophagus and cause the burning feeling, also known as reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Most of us experience occasional heartburn, which can be caused by any number of reasons, including:

  • Pressure on the stomach – Overeating, pregnancy and even constipation can lead to heartburn.
  • Certain foods – Tomatoes, citrus fruits, garlic, onions, chocolate, caffeinated products, alcohol and even peppermint can trigger heartburn.
  • High-fat meals – Foods high in fats and oils are common culprits for heartburn.
  • Stress – A lack of sleep and even excess worry can cause the body to produce excessive amounts of acid.
  • Smoking – A major contributor to heartburn, smoking relaxes the LES and stimulates stomach acid.

Frequent heartburn also can be a sign of more serious medical conditions like heart disease, gallstones, a stomach ulcer, a hiatal hernia, esophageal cancer, gastroparesis (often resulting from poor control of diabetes), esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus), pleuritis (inflammation of the lining of the lungs and chest cavity) and anxiety.

If you find yourself popping antacids on a regular basis, talk to your doctor. The majority of people find relief by making just a few simple lifestyle modifications.

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