Heartburn

Updated 24 June 2014

What is reflux?

Most people use the term 'heartburn' when they describe this condition. This is actually a very accurate description, although the condition has nothing to do with the heart.

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Most people use the term "heartburn" when they describe this condition. This is actually a very accurate description, although the condition has nothing to do with the heart.

In order for food to be digested, it is necessary that the stomach, the digestive glands and the intestines must produce various enzymes, including pepsin, and acid. These acids and enzymes need to change the food into a semi-liquid form, so that it can be digested further.

What causes this burning feeling?

The burning feeling in the centre of your chest is caused by stomach acids, mixed with the liquefied food, passing up through the oesophageal sphinctre. These acids burn the oesophagus, as it does not have the same protective layer of mucus as the stomach lining has. Usually this valve is tightly closed, but sometimes when it is not completely tight, acid and pepsin pass through the valve, causing this burning feeling.

This valve has two components – one the oesophagal sphinctre mentioned above – and the other a slit-like opening in the diaphragm muscle through which the oesophagus passes. The sphinctre muscle at the bottom of the valve may become too relaxed, or if your oesophagus goes through the diaphragm you might have a hiatus hernia.

Causes lifestyle-related

Many of the causes of reflux are lifestyle related – high alcohol consumption, overweight, smoking, certain prescription drugs as well as certain fatty, spicy or acidic foods. With some modification in diet and lifestyle, reflux can be minimised, if not entirely obliterated.

(Health24, updated December 2012)


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Heartburn expert

Monique Marais is a Gastroenterologist working in Cape Town. After qualifying at the University of Pretoria, she worked in emergency rooms in South Africa and the UK before going into private practice.

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