After a meal—especially a large one—it’s not uncommon to feel the burning sensation of heartburn in your chest. Around one in 10 adults experiences heartburn at least once a week, according to the Cleveland Clinic. One in three experiences it monthly.
Chronic heartburn—occurring more than twice a week, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—can indicate a more serious condition. Frequent heartburn is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and may be accompanied by additional symptoms such as acid regurgitation, a dry cough, asthma symptoms, and difficulty swallowing.
Why Does Eating Cause Heartburn?
When you swallow food, it passes down your throat and through your esophagus en route to your stomach. The action of swallowing causes the muscle that controls the opening between your esophagus and stomach to open when you swallow food. Otherwise, it remains tightly closed.
If this muscle fails to close properly after you swallow, the acid-containing contents of your stomach may travel back up into your esophagus. This is called “reflux.” Sometimes, this stomach acid reaches the lower part of your esophagus, potentially resulting in heartburn.
Easing Heartburn After Eating
Eating is a necessity, but getting heartburn doesn’t have to be an inevitable result. There are steps you can take to soothe the feeling of heartburn after a meal. The following home treatments can increase your comfort level when you feel heartburn coming on.
Wait to Lie Down
You may be tempted to collapse on the couch after a big meal or to go straight to bed after a late dinner. However, doing so can lead to the onset or worsening of heartburn. Finish your meals at least three to four hours before lying horizontally and avoid eating additional snacks right before bed. Harvard Medical School recommends keeping active by moving around for at least 30 minutes after eating—for example, by doing dishes or going for an evening walk.
Wear Loose Clothing
Tight belts and other constricting clothing put pressure on your abdomen and can spell trouble for heartburn. Loosen any tight clothing after a meal or change into something more comfortable to avoid heartburn.
Don’t Reach for a Cigarette
Smokers may be tempted to have an after-dinner cigarette, but this decision can be costly in more ways than one. Among the many health problems that smoking can cause, it also encourages heartburn by relaxing your lower esophageal sphincter.
Raise the Head of Your Bed
Try elevating the head of your bed about four to eight inches off the ground to give gravity a hand in helping to keep your stomach’s contents where they belong. Remember, you must actually raise the bed itself, not just your head. Propping yourself up with extra pillows puts your body into a bent position that can increase pressure on your abdomen, aggravating heartburn and reflux symptoms.
Instead, Harvard Medical School recommends placing four to six-inch wood blocks securely under the two bedposts at the head of your bed. Sleeping on a special wedge-shaped pillow is another effective approach that can be found in many maternity stores (GERD symptoms are common in pregnancy). Wedges found in medical supply stores and some drugstores can also be inserted between your mattress and box spring to elevate your body from the waist up.
In many cases, the lifestyle modifications mentioned here are all that you need to avoid or ease heartburn and other symptoms of GERD. However, if your symptoms persist or become more frequent, see your doctor for testing and treatment.
Your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter medicine, such as a chewable tablet or liquid antacid. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) note that Alka-Seltzer, Maalox, Mylanta, Rolaids, and Riopan are often recommended to relieve esophageal reflux symptoms like heartburn.
More severe cases might require prescription-strength medicines—such as H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)—to control or eliminate stomach acid. H2 blockers such as Tagamet (cimetidine), Pepcid AC (famotidine), Axid AR (nizatidine), and Zantac 75 (ranitidine) provide short-term relief and are effective for about half of those with GERD symptoms, according to NIH.
PPIs include Prilosec (omeprazole) and Prevacid (lansoprazole). These drugs are generally more effective than H2 blockers, and can relieve heartburn and GERD symptoms in most people.
Your doctor may want to perform a visual examination of your esophagus, called an “endoscopy,” to determine if your esophagus lining is seriously inflamed. Inflammation of the esophagus can lead to bleeding and difficulty swallowing. Medical treatment may be necessary in such cases, though surgery rarely is needed. Surgery should only be considered when discomfort is severe and lifestyle changes and medication fail to manage symptoms. Developing and maintaining good post-meal habits is often enough to dampen the fire of heartburn.