Is There a Relationship Between IBS and Heartburn?

IBS and Heartburn: What You Need to Be Aware Of

Living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and the symptoms can be, at times, difficult to cope with or even manage. Many people with IBS report symptoms relating to heartburn and GERD. Could IBS and heartburn be connected? Keep on reading to find out.

What Is Heartburn?

Heartburn, also known as acid reflux, happens when some of your stomach acids come up into your esophagus. This results in symptoms including:

  • Burning sensations in the chest
  • Sour taste in the mouth
  • The feeling of a lump at the back of your throat
  • A cough
  • Hiccups
  • Hoarseness
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Bad breath

Most people have experienced heartburn at some point, usually after overindulging in a rich meal or too much alcohol. If you get heartburn on a more regular basis, this is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Heartburn can be triggered by certain foods and drinks, some medications and stress. It is more common in people who smoke, are overweight or pregnant. It can be treated with over-the-counter antacids, or in more severe cases, medication which reduces the amount of acid that your stomach produces.

Is There a Relationship Between IBS and Heartburn?

IBS and heartburn appear to be two distinct conditions, with IBS affecting the lower part of the digestive tract and heartburn affecting the upper part.

However, research shows that as many as 79 percent of people with IBS could also have GERD, and 71 percent of people with GERD could also have IBS. This suggests there is at least some overlap between the two conditions, and there are several theories as to why:

Increased Sensitivity to Internal Distress

One theory about the relationship between IBS and GERD is that people with these conditions have an increased sensitivity to internal distress, for example after overeating or eating something which irritates the digestive tract.

In healthy people, this would not normally cause a problem, but people with IBS or GERD could experience severe discomfort or even pain as a result.

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Nervous System Dysfunction

Another theory as to how IBS and GERD are linked is through the nervous system. The nervous system is divided into two branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “fight or flight” response to danger and kicks in when we are under stress. The parasympathetic nervous system comes into action during relaxation, and its function is sometimes known as “rest and digest.”

The fact that both IBS and GERD can get worse with increased emotional stress suggests that there could be a link between the two conditions via the nervous system, too much stress and not enough relaxation.

IBS and GERD Are Actually the Same Conditions

There is one school of thought that suggests IBS and GERD could actually be part of the same disorder. Both are caused by unusual contractions of the digestive tract, although they both affect opposite ends.

This theory is supported by research which found that some patients’ IBS symptoms improved when they were treated with medication for GERD.

How to Treat IBS and Heartburn Together

The best way to treat IBS and heartburn together is to take a holistic view of the body rather than focusing on treating individual symptoms.

Both conditions can be affected by eating too much or eating certain trigger foods. These trigger foods often include rich, fatty or spicy foods, alcohol, caffeinated drinks, and in the case of IBS, high fiber foods. Keep a diary, noting down all of your meals and symptoms to see if you can identify any triggers, and then avoid them.

Another way to identify trigger foods is by using an elimination diet in which foods are cut out of the diet and then gradually reintroduced. This should be done under the supervision of a dietician in order to ensure that you are still getting all of the nutrition you need.

If you suffer from IBS, heartburn, GERD, or all three, it is best to eat little and often to avoid overloading your digestive system at any one time.

You should also practice “mindful eating” by sitting down for meals and chewing each mouthful properly. Smelling and tasting food help to stimulate your stomach and is an important part of the digestive process. This is why eating on the go or while doing something else can cause problems and should be avoided.

Stress is another common trigger of both IBS and heartburn. Practice relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises or meditation. If you are under long-term stress, counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also be beneficial.

If you are overweight, then shedding some pounds can help, especially with GERD symptoms. Or if your GERD or heartburn is worse at night, try propping up the head of your bed with some books to reduce acid reflux. Also, if you smoke, ask your doctor or pharmacist for help on how to quit smoking.

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