Heartburn or Acid Reflux

Heartburn or Acid Reflux: Which one is it?


Are there certain meals or foods you no longer associate with? Ones where they’ve left you hunched over in pain? How about a time when you’ve had 911 dialed, ready to call because your chest feels like it’s on fire? Chances are you were experiencing heartburn or acid reflux…or both. Although there are similarities between the two, these terms are not interchangeable and have different meanings.

My memory of when I experienced heartburn for the first time is just as clear as when my now-husband proposed to me. Yes, both involved my heart pounding out of my chest, but for very different reasons.

“an unknown and very unwelcoming burning sensation”

It was a Wednesday and I walked to the newly renovated food hall across campus. I ordered an Asian-inspired meal and ate every bite! Fueled up, I started cramming for my upcoming nursing exam, when I was hit with an unknown and very unwelcoming burning sensation. When I realized it wasn’t going away, it sent me rummaging through my textbooks trying to diagnose this feeling. Not only was the chest pain not going away, but I kept coughing and can still remember the sour taste in my mouth.

One of my nursing friends told me with a calm tone that it’s probably just heartburn. Why did she seem so calm? When I asked, she mentioned how she gets it all the time. People have to deal with this on a regular basis? Was this my future?


Heartburn is a burning sensation in the chest or throat. Despite its name, it actually has nothing to do with your heart. It is a symptom felt/experienced by an individual, typically as a result of acid reflux.

60 million people (roughly 1 in 5) experience heartburn each month

Heartburn can be a crippling and scary experience. It is one of the most common and subjective symptoms that can be experienced by anyone, no matter their age. More than 60 million people (roughly 1 in 5) experience heartburn each month in the US. Some studies suggest that more than 15 million Americans experience heartburn symptoms every day (NIH). If you’ve experienced heartburn, your mind probably takes you to the first time it occurred due to the unnerving discomfort.  

It’s important to understand that heartburn is not always a symptom of a serious condition, however, it should not be ignored. I was suggested to monitor if those symptoms recurred and if so, make note of what I was eating and what I was doing.

“someone holding a lighter to my chest”

People often describe heartburn as a burning sensation in their chest or throat, or as a sharp pain near their stomach and chest area. I’ve even heard it described as “someone holding a lighter to my chest.” This feeling can be accompanied by a sour taste in your mouth or even nausea and vomiting. My heart goes out to those who experience these feelings every day (no pun intended).

Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is a common digestive issue that can be incredibly uncomfortable and disrupt your daily life. Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid flows into the esophagus, while heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux.

Let’s first understand a bit about the stomach anatomy. Within the stomach walls there are parietal cells and they have a very important job: they create acid. This process is called "secretion", which means that the cells release acid into the digestive tract. This acid helps to break down food so that the body may fully absorb the nutrients.

At the lower end of our esophagus, right where it connects to the stomach, there is a sphincter (LES). Think of this as a valve – it is intended to let food pass into the stomach and keep the contents of the stomach contained. Picture the scene from Indiana Jones where he narrowly slides under the closing stone wall, grabbing his hat at the last second. Once he makes it through, he cannot turn back (yes, in this scenario Indiana Jones is food).

However, if there is too much pressure in the stomach or if the LES isn’t functioning properly, some of the stomach contents, including acid, will backflow (reflux) into the esophagus – this is acid reflux. When the lining of our esophagus is exposed to the harsh acidity, it causes a burning sensation in our chest and throat.

Many people will experience acid reflux occasionally. In fact, almost everyone will experience acid reflux at some point in their life. Though it is uncomfortable and a bit unnerving, the symptoms typically subside given some time.


The main culprit of heartburn is diet.  However, there are many things that may cause heartburn or make it worse. These include:

Foods that cause acid reflux

  • Carbonated beverages
  • Acidic foods – citrus fruits (limes, grapefruit, oranges) and tomatoes (and tomato-based foods)
  • Chocolate (and cocoa)
  • Alcohol
  • Pregnancy
  • Obesity
  • Laying down after eating
  • Caffeinated beverages – coffee, energy drinks, tea
  • Spicy foods
  • Fatty foods – especially, highly processed or fried foods
  • Smoking

Food Journaling

Almost all heartburn is connected to diet. Approximately 95% of people are able to connect heartburn to a dietary decision (Tampa Bay). If you are experiencing heartburn more than once a month, a food journal is a great place to start tracking. We found a great article from Healthline that lays out how to keep a good food journal. Here is how we keep ours:

How to keep a food journal:

  1. Create a note on your phone. If you’re a pen and paper kind of guy, find yourself a notebook and pen.
  2. Write down what you eat each meal and at what time. Even the snacks, fun-sized candy, or the gum you took from your coworker.
  3. Write down any symptoms you feel. Try to be descriptive.
  4. Include the times of when those symptoms occurred and for how long.
  5. Each week review journal to pinpoint any trends or common themes.

When To See A Doctor

No matter how often you experience heartburn, it is important to make your doctor aware. Persistent heartburn is more than just an uncomfortable feeling. It can be a sign of a more serious condition - gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) that needs to be diagnosed and treated by a doctor. Keeping your physician informed can help you get the proper treatment and prevent further complications down the road. Don’t forget to snag your food journal on your way out the door, Indiana Jones style!

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