Popular stand-up comic Brian Regan has a sketch where he goes to the doctor and gets a list of things that cause heartburn. He’s dumbfounded. “Yeah, I know this. I know how to get it,” he says with a confused look on his face, “It’s like having a cannonball wound and getting a list . . . ‘1) Do not stand directly in front of a cannon.’ I have a cannonball wound! Do you have some cannonball-wound ointment?”
Sadly, Mr. Regan’s desire to combat heartburn on a remedy-basis only is not the ultimate answer. Taking antacids like Zantac and Pepcid can relieve the symptoms of heartburn temporarily, but they aren’t the cure, and heartburn can still cause damage if it isn’t prevented at the source.
Some Causes of Heartburn
Brian Regan’s doctor gives him a list of items to avoid, and then says, “Oh yeah, and lay off dairy.” Regan says the doctor may as well have said, “And no more happiness!” This list is a little bit like that, but when the ultimate goal is to prevent the pain of heartburn, it seems less malicious.
- Caffeinated drinks like coffees and colas. One of the effects of caffeine is a relaxation of the LES, or Lower Esophageal Sphincter. This can cause the stomach’s contents to “reflux” into the esophagus.
- Alcoholic drinks. It seems strange since caffeine and alcohol seem to be opposites, but alcohol has nearly the same effect as caffeine on the LES.
- Tight clothes. Yes, we’re going with the no more happiness principle here. Actually, tight clothes force food to reflux into the esophagus, especially tight jeans and belts, and anything that tries to pull everything in like control-top hosiery. Isn’t it a great time to invest in something comfortable, like pajama pants?
- Eating before bed. The days of the midnight snack should be over for heartburn sufferers. Lying down shortly after eating increase the chances of reflux.
- Chocolate.Everything good causes heartburn, apparently. Chocolate contains theobromine, another chemical that relaxes the LES and lets acid into the esophagus.
- Fatty or fried foods and large meals. Fatty food or eating large amounts slows down digestion, and the longer food stays in the stomach, the more easily the food can be forced into the esophagus.
- Tobacco. The chemicals in cigarettes and other tobacco products weaken the LES, which means that over time it simply lets more food back into the esophagus.
- Citrus fruits, tomatoes, and other highly acidic foods.
Avoiding the things on this list and developing good nutrition and fitness habits can cut back on the number of times you have to take heartburn medication, and keeping the acid out of the esophagus will help it to serve you happily for much longer. Gradually introduce heartburn-avoidance habits into your life to avoid making yourself wonder whether life is worth living, even with heartburn, but do introduce them. Having the capacity to treat the symptoms is necessary, but avoiding the symptoms as often as possible will be much more effective than any “cannonball ointment.”