Individuals who suffer from frequent headaches may find another common ailment creeping up on them: heartburn. What do heartburn and headaches have in common? When we look at the details of these two frustrating ailments the common elements becomes obvious.
Heartburn and headaches affect all people at one point or another, but when headaches are a frequent problem, heartburn can be close behind due to some of the methods we use to treat headaches. This is especially true in people who suffer from an acid reflux problem known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) or peptic ulcers.
To understand how headaches can lead to heartburn, we must first understand acid reflux. Acid reflux is a process in which gastric acids in the stomach rise up into the esophagus, causing irritation and pain (heartburn). Acid reflux, or GERD when it becomes chronic, is usually related to food, pressure, or gastric swelling caused by the H pylori bacterium.
Additionally, peptic ulcers (small holes in the lining of the stomach or duodenum) can develop as stomach acid washes over the lining of the stomach. Peptic ulcers are usually related to a bacterial infection from H pylori bacteria in the stomach.
Now that we know what commonly causes heartburn, we can explore how heartburn and headaches may be related.
Heartburn and Headache Medications
Over-the-counter medications and prescriptions for chronic headaches including ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen, and many migraine medications are “NSAIDs”. NSAID stands for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. As the name implies, these types of medications are great at relieving headaches by reducing the amount of swelling around blood vessels that cause us to fee a headache.
Unfortunately, these drugs are also great at eating small holes into the lining of the stomach and causing peptic ulcers. (H pylori bacteria are not always a component in this type of ulcer development, though the bacteria may be present as well.) Peptic ulcers can promote acid reflux and cause heartburn.
Medications for headaches and heartburn are dual symptoms that typically develop over a longer period of time. The risk of developing ulcers and heartburn increases when NSAIDs are used for an extended period of time.
Heartburn and Headache Home Therapies are Conflicting
If you have a hangover headache (from a night of drinking too much alcohol, perhaps) it is common practice to drink plenty of water since the cause of the headache might be dehydration.
Unfortunately, alcohol relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and this is the muscle that keeps acid reflux from entering the esophagus and causing heartburn. When you drink water, you dilute the acids but make them rise closer to the esophagus.
Many people with other conditions that weaken the LES report heartburn from drinking water without alcohol consumption, too. Since the LES is relaxed, there is nothing stopping the acids form entering the tube. The best way to avoid this problem is simple: eat something first. The general rule is to “give stomach acid something to do”, so eating crackers or a heartburn friendly food before drinking water can help.
If you have ever had a big headache and no medicine on hand, someone may have suggested that you consume a caffeinate beverage, such as coffee, to increase blood flow and minimize swelling. Caffeine is another agent that relaxes the LES. Most caffeinated beverages are carbonated, too. Carbonation is another trigger for heartburn.
Headache and Heartburn Share Common Food Triggers
Heartburn is commonly triggered by an offending food or as part of a medical condition in which certain foods aren’t tolerated by the body or immune system. Headaches can also be triggered by these foods.
For example, MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a very common seasoning in prepackaged foods that causes people to experience headaches. Spicy foods cause heartburn, too, and people who are intolerant to glutens also experience heartburn. Glutens in general can cause headaches in people who are sensitive to the substance.
There is one more note-worthy common link between heartburn and headaches: lack of food. Skipping a meal causes some people to get a headache; it also causes heartburn and acid reflux. In others, headache and heartburn will happen within just a couple of hours on an empty stomach. The solutions here are our heartburn remedies and to eat smaller, more frequent meals.