Reflux sounds more like a problem that might affect the plumbing in your kitchen or bathroom; however, it is actually your food pipe involved when gastric reflux occurs.
Heartburn is the more common term used to describe this symptom of the medical condition known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease. It is caused by the washing back of food and stomach acid up into the food pipe (oesophagus). Of course we do need some acid in our stomach to assist in the breakdown of food, to stimulate the production of enzymes to aid digestion, and to kill bacteria. So heartburn usually means not too much acid, but acid in the wrong place.
Professor Terry Bolin, Professor of Gastroenterology at Prince of Wales Hospital in NSW, explains that heartburn occurs when the acid contents of the stomach flow back into the oesophagus and irritate its sensitive lining. According to Professor Bolin this is mainly due to a weakness in the anti-reflux valve at the top of the stomach; and this weakness can be worsened by increased pressure on the stomach due to obesity or pregnancy.
Up to 70% of women are affected by indigestion or heartburn at some stage during pregnancy. Apart from the issue of increased pressure, it is thought that during pregnancy the hormone progesterone relaxes the valve which normally prevents the reflux or "back wash" of acid occurring.
Of course you don’t have to be pregnant to have heartburn. Drinking alcohol and smoking, skipping meals, meals that are too large, or eating "on the run" or too quickly all make it more likely you will suffer with heartburn.
As heartburn frequently occurs at bed time when you lie down, it’s important not to have a large meal late at night. Sometimes relief can be obtained by sleeping with the head and shoulders propped up, or by raising the head of the bed.
For occasional heartburn problems, your pharmacist may recommend medicines that neutralise acid (antacids) and prevent it being pushed up into the foodpipe or others that reduce acid secretion.
For frequent heartburn problems you should consult your doctor. Medicines are available that can relieve and prevent indigestion and heartburn symptoms by reducing the amount of acid your stomach produces.
Be sure to see your doctor also if your heartburn is not relieved by the use of the simple remedies mentioned above, if the pain of heartburn recurs, or if the chest pain moves to your arm.