Most of us have experienced heartburn at some point – and it can be particularly common over the festive period when we tend to indulge on rich food and drink a little more than usual, leading to that familiar burning sensation in your chest or throat.
While it’s generally understood that things like coffee, fizzy drinks and spicy foods can lead to heartburn, other causes are not so widely recognised. With the help of Dr Colin Cable, assistant chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, we look at some of the heartburn triggers that may surprise you.
You may love your avocado on toast, but it might not love you. Although generally deemed healthy because they are high in monounsaturated fats and nutrients, avocados are actually as likely to give you heartburn as a greasy burger. To understand why, you need to know a little about what actually causes heartburn, a common symptom of acid reflux.
“At the bottom of your oesophagus and the top of the stomach is a valve, or muscle, that opens to allow food into the stomach, but then closes to stop food going upwards,” explains Dr Cable. “Heartburn is the result of this valve not being properly closed, allowing the acid contents of the stomach to go up into the oesophagus and irritate the lining. One of the things that can make heartburn worse is if the levels of stomach acid increase. Fatty foods, whether they’re greasy burgers, or foods that we consider healthy, such as avocados or nuts, take longer to digest and so sit in the stomach for longer, causing more acid to be produced. The more acid produced, the more likely it is to result in heartburn.”
A lot of people automatically turn to a glass of milk as a cure for heartburn, but if that’s your usual go-to, you might want to have a re-think, or at least ensure you’re swapping full fat for semi-skimmed or skimmed. “Because of the fat content, whole fat milk can act like any high fat food and sit in the stomach for a while, leading to increased production of acids,” says Dr Cable.
Rather than trying home-made remedies, consult your local pharmacist who can advise on medicines to help with the symptoms of heartburn. Antacids, such as Rennie, are alkaline compounds that work by neutralising the acid in the stomach, causing relief from the pain and discomfort. Rennie can be taken day or night – in tablet or liquid form – to help banish the burn.
You may not think it can actually be a trigger, but tight clothing pressing on your stomach can cause heartburn because the pressure causes the valve to open and release acid into the stomach. So, if you’re choosing your outfit for Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve right now, be sure to leave yourself a little room (and hold the Spanx.)
Although the festive period is a great time to relax with friends and family, it can also come with stress and anxiety, particularly when you’re the busy host. And if you’ve ever suffered heartburn when you’ve been stressed, you’re not alone. But the jury is still out on exactly why that seems to be the case.
“Studies suggest that people under stress report increased symptoms of heartburn, but that’s not necessarily because their stomachs are producing more acid,” says Dr Cable. “It’s possible that when the brain is under stress, changes occur that make us more sensitive to pain, so something that would normally register as just a bit uncomfortable becomes painful. But it seems to be about the way that the body perceives pain, rather than about physical changes.”
We all like to dabble in the selection box, but disappointingly, everyone’s favourite go-to treat could also give you heartburn. “There are compounds in chocolate — such as theobromine and caffeine — that could cause the valve at the end of the oesophagus to become looser,” says Dr Cable. “Chocolate is also made of cocoa, which contains serotonin, a brain chemical associated with relaxation that might also cause the muscle at the top of the stomach to relax.”
If this muscle is relaxed, acids can more easily flow the wrong way into the throat, causing pain. The answer? Enjoy your festive treats in moderation (as much as possible) and, if you are prone to heartburn, keep Rennie on standby to work directly on the cause of the problem, neutralising excess stomach acid.
Rennie Peppermint fast-acting tablets get to work within minutes to provide relief from heartburn, indigestion and acid reflux. Always read the label. Speak to your pharmacist to find out more about the full range of Rennie products. If you have had heartburn for more than three weeks, consult your GP, as it may be a symptom of another underlying condition.
Dr Cable does not endorse any products or brands.