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Preventive Maintenance: Fixing that burning feeling

Do you ever get that "burning feeling"? I don't mean when the load's not ready, or you're not going to make it home for the weekend - again. But, do you ever get that burning sensation right in the mi...

Do you ever get that “burning feeling”? I don’t mean when the load’s not ready, or you’re not going to make it home for the weekend – again. But, do you ever get that burning sensation right in the middle of your chest? Especially after you’ve eaten a big meal?Although not serious, heartburn can be very uncomfortable.

Almost every North American has experienced heartburn at least once. It happens because the cardiac sphincter at the top of the stomach doesn’t close completely – letting some partially digested food push back up into the esophagus. Since this food has already been attacked by the digestive juices, it is acidic and irritates the esophagus – causing the burning sensation.

Heartburn happens for many reasons. Although very rare, some people have a physical defect. More commonly – people get heartburn because they eat or drink too much, too quickly. When your stomach encounters chunks of unchewed food, its muscles go into overdrive breaking them up. Often the strong muscle contractions force the food back up your throat – causing the burning. Tight clothing and changes in body position (like bending over, or lying down) can cause it, too. Smoking and some medications can bring it on, as well.

So, how can you avoid heartburn? Eat less at a meal, or have many small meals over the day. Chew your food more thoroughly, and eat slowly. Drink liquids between meals to slightly dilute the acidity of your stomach. Wait an hour after eating to lie down. Don’t exercise for a couple of hours after eating. Watch those tight waistbands on your jeans. Stay away from any foods or medications that have led to heartburn in the past. Don’t smoke. Lose weight if you need to. As well, you can get digestive enzymes at a health food store that will often alleviate the burning. Take them with, or after your meal.

Remember, a strong acidity in your stomach is necessary for proper food digestion. So, don’t keep popping antacids or acid controllers for heartburn. They may soothe the burning, but also mask the symptoms of a related condition – an ulcer. Heartburn is an inconvenience, but an ulcer may lead to serious health problems.

So, what exactly is an ulcer? Well, the lining of a healthy digestive system is covered by a layer of mucous. This mucous layer protects the cells. You get an ulcer when a section of the mucous disappears. On this uprotected area, your strong digestive acid starts working. Over time, the acid can burn down to the capillaries – causing bleeding. If the bleeding becomes heavy, you may become deficient in iron. If untreated, the acid burns a little deeper, and reaches the nerve endings – causing pain. The next step can become quite serious (even life-threatening). If left unchecked – the acid can burn right through the lining. This leaves an open pathway for partially digested food to enter your abdominal cavity – causing serious infection.

But, what causes ulcers? Most people think it’s spicy food, or stress. These certainly aggravate an ulcer. But, they don’t cause them. There are three known causes of ulcers: a bacteria (H. pylori), certain anti-inflammatory drugs (Ibuprofen and Naproxen), and physical conditions that cause your stomach to put out too much acid.

In the past, people with ulcers were put on a bland, boring diet. Not any more. Now, ulcer sufferers are treated with antibiotics and told to stay away from any foods that bother them. Specifically, stay away from coffee – both regular and decaffeinated – it stimulates your stomach to make more acid. So, if you’ve already got a little ulcer starting, the coffee will cause it to get bigger. As well, avoid taking Aspirin. And don’t smoke. Take care of yourself. But if you get an ulcer, let the doctor treat it. Because of the different causes, ulcers need specialized treatments. Self-medication may make you feel better, but won’t make you better. This is one condition best left to the experts.

– Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail at

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