Occassional, mild heartburn probably isn’t worth worrying about. But frequent heartburn certainly is. Heartburn can affect your quality of life – you may struggle to sleep, find it difficult to work the next day, no longer enjoy certain foods, and experience severe pain and discomfort.
Frequent heartburn may also be an indication of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). GORD, in turn, increases your risk for Barrett’s oesophagus, a condition marked by a change in the appearance of the cells in the oesophagus. In some people, this eventually develops into cancer of the oesophagus – a life-threatening condition.
Left untreated, heartburn may also contribute to infections of the upper respiratory tract.
Myth # 2: Heartburn is always linked to what you eat and drink
While it’s true that rich, spicy foods, onions, garlic, alcohol and coffee may cause heartburn in some of us, there may be other underlying causes.
Heartburn and GORD may occur because the lower oesophageal sphincter (LES), the valve-like structure between the oesophagus and the stomach, relaxes more often than it should, or at the wrong time. Hiatal hernia, where a part of the stomach protrudes through a small opening (a hiatus) in the diaphragm, may be another cause.
In some people, food remains in the stomach for an abnormally long time as a result of autonomic nerve damage. And, in others, the salivary and mucus-generating glands in the digestive system don’t work as they should, which may contribute to heartburn.
If heartburn is affecting your quality of life, it’s best to get it checked out by a doctor.
Myth #3: Smoking helps to relieve heartburn
No, the opposite is true. The more you smoke, or the more you’re exposed to second-hand smoke, the greater your risk for heartburn and GORD.
Research shows that tobacco smoke increases stomach acid production, reduces the rate at which the stomach empties, decreases the pressure on the lower oesophageal sphincter (allowing stomach acid to flow back up into the oesophagus), promotes the movement of bile salts from the intestine into the stomach (making stomach acid more harmful), and injures the oesophagus (making it less able to resist damage from stomach acid).
Smoking may also affect the medicine your doctor has prescribed for heartburn, making it less effective.
Myth #4: Heartburn is a normal part of ageing
While the prevalence of heartburn and GORD tends to increase with age, it doesn’t mean that it’s a normal part of ageing. In fact, people who experience heartburn in their 50s and 60s are more likely to present with serious complications, like erosive oesophagitis or Barrett’s oesophagus.
What’s more, GORD symptoms may differ from those experienced by younger adults. While people in their 20s, 30s and 40s may experience heartburn and regurgitation, GORD symptoms in elderly people may include difficulty swallowing, vomiting, weight loss, chest pain, anaemia and anorexia.
To complicate matters, age-related changes to the nervous system could mean that older adults get desensitised to the damage that occurs in the oesophagus – in other words, you may reflux regularly, but simply not be aware of it.
Talk to your doctor if you experience any of the signs or symptoms described above.