Last Updated: June 7th, 2019

If you’ve ever been awakened at night by a burning sensation in your chest or stomach, odds are you’re having a bout of heartburn or indigestion. While many people use these terms interchangeably, there are actually significant differences between the two conditions. Here’s some information on how heartburn and indigestion differ, and what you can do to find relief.

Heartburn 101

Heartburn is the term commonly given to a condition known as acid reflux. It occurs when your esophagus fills with stomach acid, leading to a burning feeling. There are a couple of reasons why this happens.

  1. Your stomach may produce too much acid.
  2. The lower portion of your esophagus, a muscle known as the lower esophageal sphincter, isn’t working correctly. As a result, the muscle doesn’t completely close after you eat.1
Acid reflux usually causes chest discomfort, but it can also affect your throat.

An attack can last for just a few minutes, or for several hours, before it finally subsides and you find relief. Most of the time, acid reflux is worse after you eat.2

What causes heartburn?

Well, there are a lot of triggers. Eating certain types of food can set off an attack of acid reflux. You might have a meal consisting of greasy or fatty foods, or you might simply overindulge. In many instances, acid reflux can occur when you eat a meal right before going to bed.3

If you’re overweight, you may be more prone to suffering from heartburn. Also, drinking too much alcohol, or caffeine, could increase your risk.4

If you have heartburn more than two times a week, you may have a more severe form of the condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.5

Finding Relief from Acid Reflux

Now that you know what causes heartburn, the next thing you likely want to know is what you can do in order to get lasting relief.

Thankfully, you have several options. For example, be sure to stay away from the foods that can lead to attacks. These foods include:

  • Heartburn | Westwood WellnessMints
  • Citrus fruits
  • Tomato-based products
  • Spicy foods
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Chocolate
  • Carbonated beverages

Also be sure to maintain a healthy weight, and eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day, rather than one or two large meals. Reducing the amount of fatty foods you eat may help as well. Your posture may also play a role in causing your symptoms. Also, don’t eat lying down. Have your meals sitting up, and remain upright for about an hour after eating. If possible, avoid bending over after you eat. Wear clothing that is loose around your abdomen, and try raising the head of your bed about 6-8 inches while you sleep – pillows can help.6

If none of these methods work, you might need to see a doctor to have your esophagus examined. In some cases, people with persistent heartburn suffer damage to the esophagus which can lead to difficulty swallowing, the formation of scar tissue on the esophagus, and other complications.7

Indigestion – The Basics

Indigestion typically affects the upper portion of the abdomen, slightly below the breastbone. Its scientific name is dyspepsia, but it’s also known as a stomachache, or an upset stomach. It is believed that indigestion occurs when stomach acid affects the mucosa, or digestive system lining. This leads to irritation and discomfort.8

If you have indigestion, you might have heartburn as well. You may also experience gas and a gurgling in your stomach, or you might start to feel full earlier during a meal than usual. One of the main differences between heartburn and indigestion is that heartburn will usually wake you up at night. That usually doesn’t happen with indigestion.9

Heartburn | Westwood WellnessThere are a lot of potential causes of indigestion, which leads to a painful, uncomfortable feeling in the stomach – often after you eat, or during your meal.

Indigestion can occur due to eating foods high in fat, or eating too quickly. Chewing with your mouth open can lead to bloating and belching, because you’re swallowing too much air. Other contributing factors to indigestion include:

  • Carbonated drinks
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Smoking
  • Stress

Research indicates that genetics may also play a role in causing indigestion. There is also evidence that a certain microorganism can cause an infection that leads to the problem. Salmonella, giardia, H. pylori, and E. coli are just a few of the bugs that have been linked to the condition.11

Finding Relief from Indigestion

There are a few different methods you can try in order to find relief from indigestion. For example, over-the-counter medications, such as antacids, are designed to address these symptoms.

If a microorganism is causing symptoms, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics.

Lifestyle changes could also help you find relief. These include:

  • Losing weight
  • Not eating at night
  • Avoiding alcoholic beverages
  • Avoiding foods that trigger symptoms

Some doctors even recommend psychological therapies to help reduce stress.12

The Bottom Line

It’s not enough to simply know what causes heartburn and indigestion. If you suffer from these problems on a regular basis, and lifestyle and dietary changes don’t work, get to a doctor. That will be your best chance of finally finding the relief you seek.

Learn More:
8 Common Digestive Problems
Upset Stomach? Ask Yourself These Questions
DIY Remedies to Soothe Diarrhea Symptoms

Sources
1.https://www.asge.org/docs/default-source/about-asge/newsroom/doc-gerd_infographic_final.pdf
2.http://www.crozerkeystone.org/services/gastroenterology-digestive/gastroesophageal-reflux-disease-gerd
3.https://www.sleep.org/articles/ease-heartburn-bedtime
4.https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/digestive-disorders/esophageal-and-swallowing-disorders/gastroesophageal-reflux-disease-gerd
5.https://medlineplus.gov/gerd.html
6.https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/15530-lifestyle-guidelines-for-the-treatment-of-gerd
7.https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10138-esophagitis
8.https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/stomach-liver-and-gastrointestinal-tract/indigestion
9.https://www.cooperaerobics.com/Health-Tips/Prevention-Plus/Heartburn-Versus-Indigestion.aspx
11.https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/indigestion-dyspepsia/symptoms-causes
12.https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/indigestion-dyspepsia/treatment