By Korin Miller– Self
If happy hour wings and beer are suddenly leaving you feeling like a fire-breathing dragon, you’re not imagining things. Unfortunately, it isn’t rare to develop heartburn symptoms in response to foods that never used to hurt you—foods you loved! It’s just a part of getting older.
If you’ve experienced heartburn, you probably know it, but the Mayo Clinic says classic heartburn symptoms include a burning pain in your chest that usually happens after eating, is typically worse at night, and gets worse when you lie down or bend over. More than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month and about 15 million Americans experience heartburn symptoms each day, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.
“Heartburn is extraordinarily common, mostly because heartburn is thought to increase in prevalence with age,” Kyle Staller, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF. That explains why you could have a double espresso on an empty stomach with no issues in your 20s, but in your 30s you wouldn’t dream of having coffee without some food first…or else. Everyone has some form of acid reflux, which is when stomach acid seeps into the esophagus (aka food pipe) and irritates it, Dr. Staller says. But there’s a reason you may be experiencing heartburn more frequently than you did a decade ago.
As you get older, a few factors can come into play that make acid reflux worse and can contribute to heartburn.
First, the sphincter on top of your stomach, which opens to allow things you swallow to go into your stomach, tends to relax a bit more with time. It still does its job, but it may not shut as quickly or efficiently as it did in the past, allowing stomach acid to creep up into your esophagus. “Your esophagus isn’t happy with being in an acidic environment, and heartburn can occur,” Dr. Staller says.
Next, your digestive system tends to slow down over time, meaning it takes your stomach more time to empty out food as you get older. And, when food hangs around in your stomach for longer periods of time, it’s more likely to have the potential to cause heartburn. That’s especially true with fatty, fried foods, like french fries, which sit in your stomach longer, Dr. Staller says.
Finally, people tend to gain weight as they get older. If you’re carrying extra weight around your midsection, that can put pressure on your abdomen and stomach, pushing more acid into your esophagus, Atif Iqbal, M.D., medical director of the Digestive Care Center at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells SELF.
Certain foods are more likely to cause issues than others, and it’s usually the good stuff like chocolate, coffee, fatty foods, spicy stuff, alcohol, and peppermint.
If you have heartburn a few times a week and it’s clearly related to something you ate or drank, Dr. Iqbal says you should be fine taking an over-the-counter antacid or acid reducer and trying to limit those foods in the future.
But if you find that you’re having heartburn more regularly, it’s a good idea to flag it for your doctor so they can help you get your symptoms under control. In addition to that, chronic heartburn raises your risk for esophageal cancer, so it’s really not something that you just want to let go. If you suffer from chronic heartburn and basic OTC medications don’t seem to be helping, Dr. Iqbal recommends asking your doctor for a simple gastrointestinal workup to see what’s going on. Heartburn medications can mask symptoms of an underlying condition like Barrett’s esophagus, a serious esophageal disorder, or even cancer, so it’s important to figure out what’s going on sooner rather than later.
Your heartburn is likely just that, but it’s important to check in with your doctor, just in case. If nothing else, they’ll help you get your digestive discomfort under control.