An introduction to acid reflux and indigestion
Indigestion is one of the more common health problems encountered. Symptoms will be familiar to most of us – for instance, after eating a bit too much. This is ‘normal indigestion’.
However, some people experience more regular bouts of indigestion to the extent that it becomes a health problem. A number of symptoms can be experienced and one of the most common is heartburn caused by acid reflux.
This page describes heartburn and acid reflux in relation to the digestive system and indigestion.
Why does indigestion cause acid reflux and heartburn?
Indigestion is basically a disturbance to the normal digestive process taking place in the stomach and first part of the digestive system.
When food is eaten, the stomach secretes two types of fluid:
- Gastric enzymes, needed to break down food
- Gastric acid, required to help gastric enzymes work better
As you will know, acid is an irritant, but the stomach is able to tolerate its own secretions because of a special type of cell lining the stomach walls.
There are times however, when the acidic contents of the stomach escape backwards and upwards into the gullet (oesophagus) - this is known as acid reflux. The gullet does not possess the same special cells as the stomach, and as a consequence, acid starts to irritate the lining, giving rise to inflammation and pain.
As the gullet lies next to the heart, the origin of the pain can sometimes be mistaken for coming from the heart as with a heart-attack or angina. This is why we have the term ‘heartburn’.
On the other hand, pain from the heart can also be mistaken for indigestion – so if your symptoms of indigestion are severe and persistent, or accompanied by difficulty breathing or pain down one or both arms, seek medical advice urgently.
What can make me prone to heartburn and acid reflux?
Acid reflux and heartburn are more likely to affect you when you:
- Have eaten too much - an overfilled stomach can ‘leak’ and cause the acidic contents to work their way back (reflux) into the gullet
- Have eaten certain foods - fatty and spicy foods tend to make the problem worse
- Bend down or lie down - this is simply the effect of gravity. When you stand, the bottom of the gullet is higher than the stomach making it more difficult for acid reflux to occur
- Are overweight - this increases the pressure inside the abdominal cavity making it more likely for food to be forced up into the gullet
- Are pregnant - heartburn is a common complaint during the 3rd part of pregnancy due to an increase in pressure inside the abdomen from the unborn baby. This is the same mechanism seen when being overweight.
- Have certain medical conditions - these include hiatus hernia and oesophageal sphincter incompetence.
Diet and lifestyle tips
Here are some steps you can take to help yourself and reduce the severity of heartburn:
- Take your time during meals and chew your food well. This allows food to pass through the stomach more quickly
- Avoid foods that will make the problem worse. In general, this list will include foods high in fat, spices and acids (citrus fruit, pineapple)
- Avoid fizzy drinks as they increase pressure within your stomach
- Eat smaller meals
- Avoid bending over after a meal
- Sleep on your back with your head and shoulders on two or more pillows
- If you are heavier than you should be, work to reduce your weight
- Smoking tends to make acid reflux worse, so reduce the number of cigarettes you consume or better still, cut them out completely.
Are there herbal and natural remedies to help me?
Many instances of heartburn are one-off episodes never to return again. Others resolve after the implementation of a few simple changes to diet and lifestyle. However, there are some people who are troubled by the symptom on a regular basis.
A class of herbs known as ‘stomach bitters’ have been used to help improve digestive function for decades. They deal with indigestion symptoms by helping the stomach digest food better.
Ali's TOP TIP: Digestisan drops contain artichoke, dandelion, boldo and peppermint – all stomach bitters. Best taken in liquid form, 5 to 10 minutes before each meal.
What about medicines from my doctor?
Your doctor may prescribe medicines for indigestion such as antacids, H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors.
Seek advice from your doctor if you have unexplained digestion symptoms, if they worsen and become severe or do not improve with treatment. Also, seek help urgently if you notice any blood in your stool or vomit.