There are many potential reasons why you can get heartburn when you haven’t eaten. Sometimes people after 3-4 hours of not eating can get heartburn. There are many potential reasons, for example the stomach simply being too acidic. In this situation when you eat usually this makes the stomach less acidic because the food lowers the acidity when mixed with the stomach acid.
The stomach being too acidic is just one potential reason for having heartburn even when you haven’t eaten. I am going to cover different ways this can happen and why and what you can do to stop it.
As I have already mentioned sometimes when someone hasn’t eaten for a longer period of time or they get heartburn when hungry, perhaps 3-4 hours after they have eaten, they will start to feel acidic in the stomach and this can even lead to heartburn and the like. For these people, the food is often actually helping negate the effect of the higher acidity in their stomach. This is more common for people who have acid reflux and conditions like GERD and LPR.
An important thing to note regarding this is food takes quite some time to digest for most people. 2 hours after eating the stomach contents will be at about 50% and after about 4-5 hours it should be completely empty.
So, this correlates with the symptoms perhaps you are feeling, because when you have less food in the stomach your stomach will become more acidic which in turn can lead to heartburn, indigestion and chest pain to name a few.
Keep in mind these effects could be from a host of different reasons that I will cover below.
The most likely reason for this happening is something you ate. There are lot of trigger foods that can and sometimes will irritate the stomach. Some people are more prone to this than others. Some of the most prominent foods and drinks you should be avoiding are – fatty foods, processed foods, spicy food, citrus fruits, soda, and alcohol to name a few. For the complete list check this article on foods to avoid.
My first and most important recommendation if you are having heartburn on an empty stomach is to avoid these triggers foods. Simply if you are eating them, they are more likely to cause acid reflux or irritation to the esophagus and the stomach too, which later can leave you with the irritation when the stomach is even empty. So basically, acid reflux on an empty stomach is often caused from irritation caused before.
For people who are more sensitive or have the likes of GERD or LPR they may need to be stricter with their diet, for these people a more deliberate diet to stop the symptoms is recommended like the diet I created for people with acid reflux called the Wipeout Diet.
One of the more likely reasons for irritation in the stomach and esophagus is due to medication. Certain medications can and will irritate the stomach and the digestive tract. This can lead to the heartburn feeling even when the stomach is empty, or even you haven’t recently eaten.
To give a couple examples of medicine that can be problematic – anti-infammatories and anti-biotics are medicines that can upset and irritate the stomach and the whole digestive system especially if taken for a longer period. Of course, certain people can take these longer term without any acid reflux symptoms though for others it can cause a lot of negative side effects such as stomach and digestive system irritation and problems.
Lower Esophageal Sphincter Problem
The thing that basically always plays an important factor in heartburn and GERD is the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). If you didn’t know the LES is the valve above the stomach which is designed to open when you eat and drink. When you are not eating or drinking the LES is meant to close over to keep the acid inside the stomach as it’s meant to be.
The problems arise when the LES doesn’t close. There are a lot of potential reasons that they LES might not close properly. Though if it doesn’t close properly this is what can lead to the heartburn, indigestion, and chest pain even when you haven’t eaten.
There are countless things that can cause the LES to malfunction, it’s uncommon to be solely related to a direct LES malfunction. This is because it has often been caused by another factor like the diet and medication I mentioned already.
To mention another couple of reasons the LES can malfunction – one is simply overeating. When I say overeating, I mean eating too much in one sitting.
Basically, when you eat too much like this puts more pressure on the stomach and this can lead to LES opening up due to this increased pressure. This repeated process over several years can weaken the LES over time which then can sometimes lead to the LES malfunctioning and not closing properly as it should.
The secret to stopping this is to stop eating as big meals, so instead of eating 2 big meals a day eat 3 or 4 small sized meals as an example. Luckily if you are experiencing this and you start eating these smaller meals this can allow the LES to heal more easily and return to its normal function over time.
Another reason the LES might not be working correctly is due to being overweight particularly in the stomach area. If someone is overweight in the stomach area, this extra weight puts more pressure on the stomach and sometimes this increased pressure causes the LES to open.
This in turn leads to heartburn and acid reflux symptoms. Sometimes for certain people simply loosing some weight around this area can completely stop heartburn and acid reflux symptoms.
Another example of the LES not working right is a lack of vitamin D. A lack of vitamin D can lead to this valve malfunctioning. Simply if that were the cause you would have to supplement some vitamin D into your diet either through tablet or being in the sun more regularly. Though keep in mind this is a lot less common than the other causes I have already mentioned above. I just wanted to give you an idea of the few of the potential reasons the LES can malfunction.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do I get heartburn when I don’t eat?
Sometimes it’s assumed that you get heartburn is because you have too much acid in your stomach but that’s not always the case.
There are quite a few ways heartburn can happen in the first place. One of the more common ones is when the lower esophageal sphincter or LES for short opens when it shouldn’t. If you didn’t know the LES is the valve directly above the stomach designed to open when food and liquid is coming down and stay closed otherwise.
If the LES is open this can sometimes lead to heartburn. The important thing to note here is often when people get heartburn it’s when they have eaten or drank something that made it worse but sometimes this effect can linger on and continue to give you symptoms even when you haven’t eaten.
Why do I have acid reflux on an empty stomach?
There are multiple reasons why you can get acid reflux on an empty stomach. The most probable causes are either from past effects of irritating the stomach and digestive tract before due to things like eating/drinking things that can worsen acid reflux like spicy food, fatty food and soda to name a few. Also, things like overeating can worsen symptoms because it puts more pressure on the valve above the stomach known as the LES. When this valve has been weakened this makes acid reflux all the more likely even when you haven’t eaten.
What can heartburn be a sign of?
Heartburn is most likely a sign of acid reflux or as it’s sometimes termed as gastro esophageal reflux disease or GERD for short. People with GERD typically have more chronic and consistent heartburn and acid reflux effects.
The most likely cause of heartburn is something you have drank or eaten or even a medicine you have taken. Some of these things will only make heartburn more likely.
For example, the common trigger foods include spicy food, fatty food, and citrus fruits to name a few. For someone with heartburn likely lowering or eliminating these triggers will help or in some cases completely stop the heartburn from happening. The same can be said for drinks, thinks like soda and alcohol are common heartburn triggers and some medication like anti-inflammatories and anti-biotics can cause heartburn especially if taken longer term.