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What's the difference between heartburn and reflux?

Confused about the difference between heartburn and acid reflux? Manan Shah, M.D., a Piedmont gastroenterologist, sets the record straight, plus shares three things you can do to reduce heartburn without medication.

"Heartburn is a condition in which you feel burning behind your chest and it can be a symptom of reflux," says Dr. Shah. "Reflux is the medical term given to the stomach contents coming up into your esophagus. Heartburn is one of the common symptoms."

How common is heartburn in the United States?

Approximately 20 percent of the population has frequent heartburn symptoms – that's one in five people. If you're one of them, it's important to get your symptoms under control. Not only will doing so improve your quality of life, but you'll also reduce your risk of esophageal cancer and esophageal stricture, a narrowing in the esophagus caused by untreated inflammation.

What can you do about heartburn?

Dr. Shah says the following are research-proven methods for lessening heartburn symptoms:

  • Lose weight if you are overweight or obese.

  • Get a better night's sleep. Elevate the head of the bed 6 to 8 inches with a cinderblock or wedge from a surgical supply store and let gravity work in your favor. Stomach acid won't come up as high in the esophagus, which should lessen your symptoms, particularly at night.

  • Consider your diet. Each person's needs are different. Certain foods may trigger heartburn in some people, but not in others. If you're susceptible to heartburn, limit your intake of the following foods to see if your symptoms improve:

"The bottom line is reflux is a condition that does affect patients and really can cause symptoms that affect quality of life," says Dr. Shah. "Medicines aren't the only options. There are a lot of things we can do with our lifestyle, the way we eat and the way we sleep to help improve our symptoms. And there are patients where diet and lifestyle don't improve their symptoms. That's where medicines and even surgery play a role."   

Get more Living Better healthy lifestyle tips.

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