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What Causes Heartburn?

Medically reviewed by Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated May 25, 2021

What Causes Heartburn?

Heartburn causes a lot of pain and discomfort, and knowing the main causes of heartburn helps prevent this from happening.

While heartburn can normally be treated with over-the-counter medicine, chronic heartburn can sometimes be a cause for concern. This is because it can start to irritate the esophagus, and can also make it difficult to keep food down or eat without experiencing pain.

It can even progress to a condition called GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disorder, which can lead to ulcers, cancer, and build up of scar tissue in the esophagus.

This is why it is important to take steps in order to prevent heartburn. And you can do this by keeping aware of what are the main causes of heartburn.

But before we get started, we need to understand what heartburn is.

Heartburn or GERD: What’s the Difference?

What is heartburn?

Heartburn, contrary to its namesake, does not actually affect the heart. It affects the person’s esophagus, and causes a painful burning sensation near the chest, which is why it’s called heartburn.

Heartburn occurs when the acids in a person’s stomach travels back up the esophagus. The acid is responsible for the pain and discomfort that heartburn causes.

In some cases, heartburn can also be accompanied by stomach pains, especially if there is too much acid in the stomach.

If you experience chronic heartburn, which is heartburn that occurs twice a week or more, it would be best to see a doctor.

What are the main causes of heartburn?

Eating certain types of foods

One of the most common causes of heartburn is eating certain types of food. In particular, the following types of food are commonly associated with triggering heartburn.

  • Spicy foods, including black pepper and mustard
  • Sour or acidic foods
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee and chocolate
  • Fatty or fried foods
  • Softdrinks

Take note that people can have different triggers for their heartburn. Some people might be okay with eating sour foods, but fried foods or fatty foods might trigger their heartburn.

It is all about knowing what types of food trigger your heartburn, and avoiding eating those foods or only eating them in moderation. In some cases, taking an antacid before or after eating can help prevent the effects of heartburn, specifically if you are eating acidic foods.

This is especially true in the case of alcohol, because drinking alcohol can relax your esophageal sphincter, which makes it more likely that acid can go up your esophagus.


Being pregnant is another possible cause of heartburn. This is mainly because the esophageal sphincter weakens during pregnancy, and the growing baby places more pressure on the stomach.

These factors both contribute to pregnant women being more prone to heartburn. In some cases, the symptoms can also get worse if pregnant women lie down.

A good solution to this would be to try and eat foods that can trigger heartburn, and to take over-the-counter medications that help manage the effects of heartburn.

Aside from these, there is not much else that pregnant women can do about heartburn.


Smokers also tend to experience heartburn more frequently than other people. This is because smoking can weaken the esophageal sphincter, making it easier for acid to go up the throat.

The best solution would be to quit smoking completely. Not only would this lower the possibility that you will experience heartburn, but you will also be healthier if you quit smoking as soon as possible.

Being obese or overweight

Being obese is another risk factor for heartburn. This is because the added fat applies pressure on the stomach, which makes obese or overweight people more prone to heartburn.

Just like with pregnant women, lying down can worsen the effects of heartburn.

When it comes to treating heartburn in obese or overweight people, eating less food that can trigger heartburn is a good start. However, the best thing to do would be to try and lose weight since this would not only lower the risk of heartburn, but it would also improve your overall health.

Eating too much

Eating too much food is another possible cause of heartburn. This happens because eating too much food stretches the stomach, which puts pressure on the muscles that help prevent acids from going up your throat.

As a result, eating too much food can sometimes trigger heartburn.

This is why it is important to only eat in moderation to help lower the risk of heartburn.

Having an empty stomach

Having an empty stomach is another trigger for heartburn. This happens because the acids in the stomach start to accumulate because there is no food to digest.

This can be managed by eating more small meals throughout the day instead of eating three big meals. This also has the added benefit of keeping you fuller for longer.

Taking certain types of medication

Certain types of medication, such as anti-inflammatory drugs and aspirin have been known to trigger acid reflux.

If you take these types of medication because of a health condition, it would be a good idea to ask your doctor for alternatives if they are triggering your acid reflux.

Key Takeaways

By taking note of these causes, you should be able to better manage your acid reflux before it becomes GERD. For people with GERD, these tips can also help you avoid triggers, and manage your condition better.

8 Common Questions About Heartburn, Answered

Learn more about heartburn, here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated May 25, 2021

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