Heartburn normally happens when your stomach acid flows back into your food pipe of the esophagus. It often feels like burning in the chest that can move up to the neck and throat. It can last for a few minutes to several hours.
The Lower Esophageal Sphincter or simply LES is one of the most important muscles that you find between chest and abdomen. When LES functions properly, it plays a crucial role in helping us eat. But when LES malfunctions, it becomes the main part in heartburn.
When the symptoms of heartburn become more regular and intense —such as twice a week or more–it’s diagnosed as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD. Heartburn starts in an area called the gastroesophageal junction, where the LES lodge in.
After food enters the stomach from the esophagus, the muscle’s task is to stop it from surging back up again. The LES contracts, squeezing the stomach entrance and creating a high-pressure zone that prevents digestive acids from seeping out.
But if the LES relaxes at the wrong moment or gradually weakens, it becomes like a faulty, ill-fitting lid, causing the area to depressurize. That allows burning stomach acid– and even chunks of food–to spurt into the esophagus, sometimes going as far up as the mouth.
It is mainly caused by the food you eat, it is said that food like caffeine and peppermint contain ingredients that may have a relaxing effect on the LES. But acidic foods like citrus and tomatoes can even worsen the irritation. Carbonated beverages play a crucial role in weakening down.
It is not only the food that worsens, but researchers also have discovered, smoking poses a risk because the nicotine in cigarettes relaxes the LES. Alcohol may have a similar effect.
Obesity can cause hernias that disrupt the anti-reflux barrier of the gastroesophageal junction that normally protects against heartburn.
Occasional heartburn is common and no cause for alarm. But if heartburn happens regularly, it may cause a bigger problem as it can weaken the LES muscle over time.
Acid leakage constantly from heartburn may form scar tissue which narrows the esophageal tube, making it harder to swallow food. Ongoing reflux can also damage the cells lining the esophagus–a rare condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which can elevate the risk of esophageal cancer.