Simple ways you can help to avoid feeling heartburn after eating
When small amounts of stomach acid travel up the throat, it can irritate the oesophagus. Liz Connor hears all about acid reflux and treatments
There's nothing that will spoil an expensive meal in a nice restaurant quite like the 'fire in the chest' sensation of acid reflux.
This common condition affects many people in varying degrees and is characterised by its most bothersome symptom - a burning feeling in the throat that can leave the chest area feeling raw and irritated.
Although acid reflux is very common and doesn't pose any serious threat to your health, it can be unpleasant to experience - especially if it's a recurring issue.
Here, we ask experts to explain everything you need to know - and most importantly, what you can do to banish the burn for good.
What is acid reflux?
"Acid reflux is a common condition that includes a burning pain, known as heartburn, in the chest," says Dr Arun Thiyagarajan, medical director of Bupa (bupa.co.uk).
The pain you feel during an episode is largely down to the acidic stomach contents being forced up into the oesophagus - the tube connecting the mouth and stomach.
"Also known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, this process brings stomach acids and enzymes into contact with the sensitive lining of the oesophagus," explains Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan (healthspan.co.uk).
"The main symptoms of acid reflux include heartburn, a burning sensation in the middle of your chest and an unpleasant sour taste in your mouth that is caused by the travelling stomach acid," says Dr Thiyagarajan.
Your symptoms are likely to be worse after eating and when lying down, which is why most people experience the reflux effect after eating a big dinner.
As well as causing a burning pain, experts explain that acid reflux can trigger a painful spasm of surrounding muscles.
"Some people with acid reflux do not experience obvious symptoms, however this 'silent reflux' may contribute to some cases of hoarseness, voice problems, cough, sensations of a lump in the throat and repeated throat clearing," says Brewer.
So, why does it happen?
Dr Thiyagarajan explains that while anyone can experience acid reflux, there are many causes and risk factors.
"These include certain foods and drinks, being overweight, stress and anxiety, smoking, medicines such as anti-inflammatory painkillers, hiatus hernia (where your stomach protrudes upwards) and being pregnant," he clarifies.
What can you do to relieve it?
There are lots of things you can do to find relief from the regular onslaught of acid reflux, and making healthy lifestyle changes is one of the easiest and most effective options. "Changes could include eating smaller and more frequent meals, not eating foods that trigger your symptoms and trying not to eat three or four hours before bed," says Thiyagarajan. He also advises not drinking too much alcohol, and trying to lose weight if you are overweight.
When it comes to diet, it's a good idea to avoid rich or 'heavy' foods, as Dr Brewer says these take longer to digest, so reflux becomes more likely.
Some people find that acidic fruit juices can also trigger indigestion or heartburn too.
She says: "Instead, select bland, non-acidic, easily digestible foods, such as cooked white rice, oats, scrambled eggs, ripe bananas, well-cooked green leafy vegetables or chicken broth.
"Milk and plain yogurt are especially helpful, as they can soothe excess acid due to the presence of calcium lactate. The probiotic bacteria in live yoghurt can also help to promote good digestion generally, and can even inhibit the growth of bacteria that can irritate the stomach lining to trigger burning sensations and indigestion."
If you're reliant on that 9am flat white on the commute to work, you might want to consider switching to breakfast tea instead. "Avoid coffee," warns Brewer, "as this relaxes the ring of muscle between the stomach and oesophagus, which can cause or aggravate heartburn."
She also suggests ditching the cigarettes, wearing loose clothing, avoiding aspirin (which can irritate the stomach) and not bending or lying down immediately after eating.
"Acid reflux can also be linked to stress," says Dr Thiyagarajan, "so finding ways to relax can be a good way of relieving symptoms."
Finally, a natural supplement may also help to stop acid reflux in its tracks. Dr Brewer suggests trying Healthspan's GastriSoothe for heartburn relief (24 x 10ml ready-to-drink sachets £9.95, healthspan.co.uk).
With a few simple measures, you should be able to find some much-needed relief from acid reflux, but if your symptoms persist for more than a week - or are recurrent - it's a good idea to seek medical advice to find out the cause.