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Heartburn? You need to change behavior

When the inside of your chest starts burning like someone just lit a campfire in your esophagus, you could take an antacid, in pill or chewable tablet form, to get some temporary relief.

But if you want to get rid of heartburn in the long term, health experts agree that you need to do more. Consider changing a few habits; that may be enough to vanquish your symptoms.

"I'm a tremendous believer in what can be done in terms of lifestyle," said Dr. David Bernstein, chief of gastroenterology at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

Heartburn, also known as acid reflux, occurs when acid from the stomach works its way back up into the esophagus, which isn't able to handle the acidity. Another term -- gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD -- refers to a condition that causes chronic heartburn, Bernstein said.

For people who suffer from heartburn only on rare occasions, over-the-counter medications are fine, Bernstein said. "Take it over a few days or a week, then stop; they're perfect [for that]," he said. But if heartburn becomes persistent or if you suddenly start developing symptoms at middle age or later, see a doctor, Bernstein urged.

To keep heartburn at bay for good, health experts recommend a range of lifestyle changes, including:

1. Lose weight

Excess pounds put pressure on the stomach and can cause acid to rise. (This is similar to what can happen during pregnancy.) "Many people lose 15 pounds, and their reflux is reversed," said Dr. Gina Sam, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at Stony Brook University Medical Center.

2. Avoid tight clothing

This applies to men and women, regardless of their weight. Tight clothing can constrict the chest, Bernstein said.

3. Adjust your routine

Try to eat many small meals a day instead of three larger ones. "If you have a big bowl of food sitting there in the stomach, it's more likely that you'll have reflux," Bernstein said. Also, Sam advises not eating just before bed because lying down boosts the risk that acid will rise.

4. Avoid troublesome foods

Figure out what triggers your heartburn and then try to avoid those foods. They vary from person to person, but common culprits include spicy foods, citrus fruits, garlic, onions and chocolate -- along with some unexpected items, such as mint-flavored gum and iced tea. In fact, Sam said that "any beverages with caffeine" can cause heartburn, including herbal teas and coffee.

5. Watch what you drink

Red wine and other forms of alcohol can also spell trouble. If you're going to a party where you expect to drink, consider taking an antacid at least an hour before or right afterward, Sam said.

Both doctors urged caution with home remedies. Though the Internet is filled with do-it-yourself treatments for heartburn, Bernstein said he doesn't recommend them.

And he said to be careful about milk, too: "That old wives' tale doesn't work. It helps you right away, but two hours later, you feel terrible."

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