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Anxiety and Heartburn - What's The Link?

Alicia Betz
October 28, 2020

Racing heart, burning chest, brain fog, trouble sleeping, feeling restless, bad taste in your mouth… if you have experienced these symptoms, you may be among the group of people who experience both heartburn and anxiety.

What exactly is the link between anxiety and heartburn? Researchers aren’t quite sure, but they have some theories.

Anxiety and Heartburn

The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”

Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, and many people describe it as a burning feeling in their chest. In its most severe form, acid reflux is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It happens when the esophageal sphincter that is supposed to keep stomach acid in the stomach allows it to come up through the esophagus.

In short: if someone has GERD, they have acid reflux, and one of their physical symptoms is the sensation of heartburn. It is also very possible to have heartburn and not have GERD. Almost everybody experiences heartburn from time to time.

Those who have chronic heartburn or GERD, however, are more likely to have anxiety, and those who have anxiety are more likely to have heartburn. Here’s why scientists believe there is a link:

zantac heartburn lawsuit

Stress: Anxiety and stress are like brother and sister, and stress has been linked to more extreme GERD.

Pain tolerance: Scientists believe that people with anxiety may be more sensitive to pain, making the discomfort and pain associated with heartburn more pronounced. An observational study found that “Among patients with GERD, increased levels of anxiety were associated with more severe retrosternal pain.”

Chest pain: According to a 2018 review, non-cardiac chest pain (NCCP) is often associated with GERD and heartburn. In fact, it is the most common contributing factor. The authors noted that “Epidemiologic studies show a high prevalence of panic disorder, anxiety and major depression in NCCP patients.” It’s not surprising that recurrent chest pain is associated with anxiety as it can be a sign of very severe medical problems such as heart attack.

Muscle tension: A large cross-sectional study that found higher levels of anxiety in people with GERD suspected that muscle tension may be a contributing factor. Anxiety can cause people to tense up their muscles, and when they do this with the muscles around their stomach, they may force acid up and out of the stomach. The same study also theorizes that the esophageal sphincter, which allows food to pass down but stops acid from coming back up, may have less pressure in people with anxiety. This could make it more likely for acid to creep up.

Quality of life: A study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology found that people who had both GERD and anxiety reported a lower quality of life. It could be that this creates a vicious cycle, where GERD causes lower quality of life, which creates anxiety, which makes GERD worse, and so on.

It is very hard to determine whether anxiety causes heartburn, heartburn causes anxiety, or whether the two conditions simply occur together without a causal relationship. Regardless of the reason, finding a way to manage these conditions can improve your quality of life.

What You Can Do To Improve Heartburn and Anxiety

Thankfully there are many ways to treat and manage heartburn and anxiety from lifestyle changes to medication.

How to manage anxiety 

  • Practice relaxation activities like meditation or yoga. 
  • Move your body
  • Sleep 7-9 hours per night
  • Get in the sun every day
  • Work with a dietitian to learn about diet changes that may help
  • Talk to a therapist
  • Consider medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or benzodiazepines. Be sure to talk to your doctor and follow his or her direction as you work to find which medication works best for you. 

How to manage heartburn

  • If you are overweight, consider losing weight
  • Keep a food diary to determine what foods trigger your heartburn
  • Eat smaller meals more often and stay upright after eating 
  • Loosen your clothing
  • Consider medication such as antacids or H2 blockers. Be aware that in April 2020, the FDA recalled a popular H2 blocker, Zantac due to concerns of a probable carcinogen being found in the drug.

What To Do If You Have Taken Zantac For Heartburn

If you currently have Zantac in your home, take it to a drug take back site to properly dispose of the medication. Talk to your healthcare provider to explore alternative options to manage your heartburn. He or she can also talk to you about the likelihood you were injured by taking Zantac. People who believe they were negatively affected have already begun filing Zantac lawsuits.

The Bottom Line

Nobody wants to live with medical conditions that negatively affect their life. In the case of anxiety and heartburn, the conditions may ebb and flow together. Even though scientists aren’t yet entirely sure why the conditions are linked, that link does exist. If you are able to successfully manage one, the other may lessen in severity as well.

If you suffer from one or both of these conditions, talk to your healthcare provider. He or she may be able to determine the cause, explore lifestyle changes that may benefit you, and/or prescribe medication to ease your symptoms.



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