What causes heartburn?

To know why heartburn happens, it can help to understand how your esophagus and stomach work. When you eat, the food passes down a long tube that connects your mouth and stomach. This tube is called the esophagus. At the bottom of the esophagus is a valve, called the esophageal sphincter. This valve opens to let food through and then closes to keep your stomach contents down. Inside your stomach is a very strong acidic mixture that starts the process of breaking down your food (digestion). Your stomach is designed to hold this mixture. However, your esophagus isn’t able to hold this mixture without getting hurt.

Sometimes, the valve that separates your stomach and esophagus doesn’t close properly, and some of the acidic mixture from your stomach goes back up the esophagus. This is called reflux. When you have reflux, you’ll often feel the burning sensation that’s heartburn. There are a few medical conditions that can cause reflux and make you feel heartburn, including:

  • Pregnancy.
  • Hiatal hernia (when the stomach bulges up into the chest).
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
  • Certain medications, especially anti-inflammatory drugs and aspirin.

Heartburn can also be caused by your eating habits — including the foods you eat, how large your meals are and how close to bedtime you eat — and certain lifestyle habits.

What can trigger heartburn?

Heartburn can be triggered by many different things that are a part of your daily life. For many people, heartburn can be caused by certain eating and lifestyle habits. These habits can involve things like eating large portions of food, eating too close to bedtime or even having high stress levels.

Certain foods and drinks can also trigger heartburn for some people. Some foods and drinks that could trigger your heartburn can include:

  • Onions.
  • Citrus fruits.
  • High-fat foods.
  • Tomatoes.
  • Tomato-based products.
  • Alcohol.
  • Citrus juices.
  • Caffeinated beverages.
  • Carbonated beverages.

Your lifestyle habits can also play a part in why you might experience heartburn. These everyday factors often contribute to medical conditions that cause heartburn, like GERD or hiatal hernia. Some lifestyle habits that can trigger your heartburn include:

  • Being overweight.
  • Being a smoker.
  • Having a high stress level.
  • Wearing tight clothes and belts.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/22/2020.

References

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