Stress and Heartburn: What's the Link?

If you wake up before sunrise, down a cup of coffee, rush to work, spend all day in the office, eat a large dinner, then lay on the couch watching TV before bedtime, you're like most stressed Americans. And if you suffer from heartburn, your lifestyle is almost definitely a contributor. Of the many factors that contribute to heartburn, stress is particularly significant because it affects all aspects of your life where heartburn is likely to occur, like when you eat meals, exercise, and go to sleep. Indeed, in one study, researchers found that those who underwent "severe, strained life stress" for six months had increased heartburn symptoms during the following four months. With that in mind, we turned to the National Heartburn Alliance, which offers important pointers on how to better manage your heartburn during stressful times.

1. Meals: Being stressed out can affect the movement of food through the digestive system. This causes stomach acid to linger in the stomach for longer, which allows more time for acid reflux to occur. To combat this, you should:

  • Stay on a regular meal schedule, and eat smaller portions
  • Avoid eating two to three hours before lying down
  • Avoid high-fat and spicy foods
  • Limit alcohol, and carbonated and caffeinated beverages
  • Stop or decrease smoking

2. Exercise: By increasing your heart rate and getting your blood flowing, exercise can alleviate stress and thus help prevent heartburn symptoms. Exercise helps keep the digestive system from stagnating and should only be done two to three hours after eating. Although, if you take a short walk immediately after a meal-as opposed to sitting in a chair or lying on the couch in front of the TV-you can help keep your digestive system moving.

3. Medication: Some medicines, like antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, can relax the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and allow stomach juices to flow into the esophagus, where it becomes exposed to harsh acid. Other medications can directly affect heartburn. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen, can increase the incidence of heartburn. Aside from acetaminophen (Tylenol), pain medications like aspirin can aggravate symptoms, as can some antibiotics and iron tablets. Whatever the case, it's always important to first consult with your doctor before taking any of these medications.