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What Causes Heartburn? A Checklist

Your daily habits may be triggering your heartburn.

While most heartburn sufferers may recognize the symptoms of the condition, few are aware of how it starts. The root cause of heartburn stems from a weakened lower esophageal sphincter (LES), or when the LES relaxes abnormally.1

The LES is a circular band of muscle at the bottom of your esophagus, and it acts like a 'valve' as it enters the stomach. Normally when you swallow, your LES relaxes to let food and liquid flow into your stomach, and then it closes again. For some people, though, the LES may open too often or not close tight enough. When this happens, the acid in your stomach can flow back up into your esophagus. Since your esophagus doesn't have the same protective lining that your stomach does, the acid can irritate its more sensitive tissues, triggering heartburn and discomfort.

Foods That May Trigger Heartburn

Although the actual cause of heartburn is physical, people generally view their heartburn triggers as the root cause. Though scientifically that’s not the case, it’s still worth noting which behaviors can trigger the experience of heartburn. Food, for instance, is a common heartburn trigger.2

Check out this list of common offenders to see if any could be triggering your heartburn:

  • Tomatoes, tomato sauce, and ketchup
  • Oranges, grapefruit, and other citrus fruits and juices
  • Garlic
  • Vinegar
  • Onions
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee, tea, or other caffeinated products
  • Alcohol
  • Peppermint
  • Fried & fatty foods
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Mustard, pepper, and other spices3

Habits That May Trigger Heartburn

Many people realize that their behaviors around mealtime, or the activities they take part in, also can cause heartburn.4 Here are some habits that could be triggering your heartburn symptoms:

  • Eating large meals or eating too fast
  • Laying down right after eating
  • Eating close to bedtime
  • Drinking alcohol or smoking
  • Pressure on the stomach from frequent bending over or tight clothes
  • Stress and/or anxiety
  • Exercising soon after eating5

Medications That May Trigger Heartburn

There are some medications that can cause heartburn, because they may relax the LES. You may want to talk to your pharmacist or doctor about your heartburn if you're taking any of the following:

  • Medications for asthma or allergies
  • Prescription blood pressure or angina pills
  • Medication for a urinary tract infection
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Prescription pain killers
  • Antidepressants6

Physical Changes & Conditions That May Trigger Heartburn

It's true that your meals, habits, or even medication could be triggering your heartburn; but the fact is that heartburn is a real condition with biological causes. Here are some physical reasons you could be suffering from heartburn:

  • Pregnancy
  • Acid Reflux
  • GERD or Acid Reflux Disease
  • Weak esophageal muscles
  • Stomach emptying muscles
  • Obesity
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Hiatal hernia
  • Peptic ulcer6


  1. “Acid Reflux (GER & GERD) in Adults.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
  2. Magee, Elaine. “Heartburn: Foods to Avoid.” WebMD, WebMD,
  3. “Heartburn Risk Factors.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 7 Aug. 2014,
  4. “Common Heartburn Triggers.” WebMD, WebMD,
  5. DerSarkissian, Carol. “What Lifestyle Changes Help Manage Heartburn?” WebMD, 14 June 2017,
  6. “Symptoms & Causes of GER & GERD.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Nov. 2014,
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