It's important to remember that heartburn is a symptom. It's pain and discomfort felt when acid refluxes from the stomach into the esophagus. Accompanying symptoms can include bloating, belching, burning or gas in the digestive system. So how does it happen?
Acid reflux happens when the valve that controls the flow of food into the stomach allows the stomach contents to flow in the other direction. This can be due to a problem with the valve or excess stomach pressure or both. Here's a look at what might happen when someone prone to heartburn eats something that doesn't agree with her.
Digestion begins in the mouth. As soon as you start to chew, saliva mixes with the food and its active ingredient the enzyme ptyalin starts to break down starches into simple sugars such as glucose. Plus chewing breaks down the food into smaller parts so that the enzymes can work on it easier.
Food is shunted from the mouth into the pharynx and hence into the esophagus, the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. Small glands located in the mucous membrane of the esophagus secrete alkaline compounds that further lubricate the food. Some 25 centimeters long, the esophagus is a muscular tube that propels the food downward to the stomach where the main business of digestion takes place. The food's entry to the stomach is controlled by a muscular valve known as the lower esophageal sphincter(LES).
The stomach responds to the influx of food by producing hydrochloric acid. This has a number of functions - to digest proteins, to kill bacteria and yeasts, and to create an acid environment for enzymes to work. The stomach lining produces a layer of mucus to protect itself from the corrosive effects of the acid.
For people with healthy digestive systems, the food (now a mass known as chyme) continues on its way down into the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. After passing into the large intestine where the nutrients and water are absorbed, the remaining waste enters the rectum for defecation.
For heartburn sufferers however, the digestive process in the stomach is the time of maximum discomfort. For various reasons, the stomach contents consisting of an acidic mass of partially digested food refluxes back through the LES into the esophagus. And unlike the stomach, the esophagus doesn't have an effective mucus lining to protect it. The result is the symptom known as heartburn.
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