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Contrary to what most people believe, experts speculate that heartburn is not necessarily caused by eating spicy food, eating late at night, or mental stress. These are just a few of the factors that can worsen the condition, but they are not the underlying causes. The two main causes of heartburn are believed to be overeating at any time of day or night and obesity. Another of the less obvious causes of heartburn can be strenuous exercise before or after meals. All of these conditions can lead to a malfunction of the lower esophageal sphincter, which is the underlying cause of this common condition—many people may confuse what triggers the burning sensation with the actual causes of heartburn.
Sufferers of heartburn generally all have a sluggish lower esophageal sphincter, which is a condition that can lead to heartburn if there is enough acid in the stomach. When this valve is reacting normally, it opens and closes to let food pass into the esophagus. If it stays open even partially, acids can be released into the esophagus, which causes a burning sensation; the pain is usually located just below the heart, which is how it came to be called “heartburn." Having a stomach that is overfull or overlarge is believed to contribute to the condition, because both situations put too much pressure on the sphincter, allowing it to stay open when it should be closed. This is one of the reasons heartburn is often a common problem during pregnancy.
Spicy foods do not usually lead to this condition unless an individual also suffers one of the underlying causes of heartburn; however, they are believed to be triggers in those who do. Other triggers can be caffeine, smoking, alcohol, and some medicines. They can sometimes cause the lower esophageal sphincter to become lax, allowing acids to escape. The more acid that is present, the worse the episode can be. For this reason, people who suffer heartburn should generally try to avoid highly acidic foods such as tomatoes, citrus fruits and foods that are high in fat.
Heartburn is considered by most to be a relatively common ailment, with millions of sufferers worldwide. Long-term heartburn should generally be treated by a physician because it can lead to more serious complications such as Barrett’s esophagus and esophagus cancer. Common treatments that are sometimes prescribed by physicians include weight loss, changes in diet, and prescription medication such as Reglan® or Nexium®.