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What's Causing My Terrible Heartburn?

What's Causing My Terrible Heartburn?

Heartburn has nothing to do with your heart, it just feels that way because the pain is located in your chest. What you’re actually feeling is an irritation in the lower part of your esophagus where it connects with your stomach.

If you’re experiencing severe and/or frequent heartburn, your occasional problem may have progressed to acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Dr. Darrien Gaston at Metropolitan Gastroenterology Consultants in the Beverly area of Chicago, Illinois, diagnoses and treats all types of heartburn and reflux problems. 

Here, he takes a closer look at the most common causes of heartburn so you can take steps to control your symptoms with lifestyle changes. If you have heartburn two or more times a week along with chest pain, come see Dr. Gaston for professional help.

The difference between heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD

Some people use these terms interchangeably, but they are separate conditions. 


Heartburn occurs occasionally, usually after a large meal when stomach acid creeps up into the esophagus. The pain sensation can be mild to severe, is felt behind the breastbone, and feels worse if you lie down or bend over. Typically, over-the-counter antacids bring relief.

Acid reflux

When the valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) at the bottom of your esophagus doesn’t close properly, it allows acid to flow up into your esophagus. Acid reflux occurs when the LES muscle malfunctions, and it can lead to heartburn as well as other symptoms, including sore throat, cough, and a sour taste in the mouth and throat.


When acid reflux occurs more than twice a week, it becomes a chronic condition called GERD. If you find yourself chewing on antacids several times a day with little to no relief, you likely have GERD, especially if you have accompanying symptoms, such as regurgitation, bad breath, persistent coughing, chest pain, and damaged tooth enamel.

Heartburn causes

Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux and GERD, but it’s also a condition on its own. If you suffer from occasional, and sometimes severe, heartburn, it’s important to discover what’s causing it so you can avoid episodes when possible. Here are some of the most common heartburn triggers.


What you eat matters when you have heartburn, as certain foods are known to trigger heartburn. The best way to find out which foods cause your heartburn is to keep track in a journal or on an app. Citrus fruits are one of the worst offenders, so you may need to steer clear of lemons, limes, oranges, and their juices. 

Spicy foods and foods that are high in fat can also cause heartburn, even if they are healthy fats, like avocados.

Finally, how you eat may contribute to heartburn as well. Rapidly stuffing food in your mouth and swallowing without chewing your food completely can lead to digestive problems and heartburn.


Caffeine is a common heartburn trigger, especially since it’s also acidic. The one-two punch of caffeine and acid can be too much for your digestive system to handle. 

Alcohol also hits you with a double whammy — it increases the acid in your stomach and relaxes your LES, which allows stomach acid to creep up.

Carbonated drinks, especially close to bed time, may trigger heartburn as well.


Exercise is great for your overall health, but if you’re not timing your workouts well, it may be the culprit behind your heartburn. If you engage in strenuous activities soon after eating, you may end up with heartburn.

Any exercise that puts pressure on your abdomen, such as sit ups, crunches, and weightlifting, can relax your LES, as well.


If you’re overweight or obese, that could be at least part of the reason behind your heartburn. Excess weight places a lot of pressure on your diaphragm and may lead to heartburn. If you need help losing weight, Dr. Gaston offers nonsurgical weight loss treatments, such as Aspire and Orbera


Nicotine relaxes your LES and allows acid to flow into your esophagus — heartburn.

Hiatal hernia

A hiatal hernia occurs when part of your stomach tissue pushes through your diaphragm, the muscle that separates your chest and stomach. The diaphragm has a small opening called a hiatus, and if your stomach bulges through that opening, it can allow food and acid to travel into your esophagus and give you heartburn. 

Heartburn relief

The first step toward relieving your heartburn is to figure out your personal triggers and avoid them. This should drastically reduce the number of heartburn episodes you experience. 

However, if you continue to suffer from chronic or severe heartburn, schedule an appointment with Dr. Gaston to find out what’s behind your heartburn symptoms and to get started on a treatment plan that can prevent complications, such as ulcers, esophageal damage, a narrowed esophagus, chronic cough, and even cancer. 

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