Dos and don’ts to prevent heartburn


Heartburn, a common symptom of acid reflux, causes generally the same symptoms in everyone — a burning sensation in the chest caused by stomach acid working its way up the esophagus.

Heartburn in general is caused by the relaxing of the sphincter muscle that separates the esophagus and the stomach. When that muscle becomes loose or relaxed, it lets acid come up from the stomach and into the esophagus, causing heartburn.

There are things that we eat or do that cause that lower muscle to relax more frequently and that increases the risk of reflux. Although every person is different, there are some rules of thumb as far as what you can do, and what you should avoid, to try to keep heartburn at bay.

One of the most effective things people can do to avoid heartburn is to avoid eating fatty meals. This includes the typical culprits like fried food, but also fatty meats. This is because fat is one thing that can cause the sphincter to relax and let acid through. Eating a low-fat, heart healthy diet is going to benefit everyone in all aspects of your life. It’s going to help manage weight, which is a trigger for heartburn and reflux, but also help avoid fat as a trigger itself.

No matter what you eat, laying down before your stomach has a chance to digest your meal is a common trigger for heartburn. Sitting is fine, but going horizontal makes it easier for stomach acid to get into the esophagus, since gravity is no longer on your side, keeping it down. This also means eating your last meal of the day at least two to three hours before bed is best. Some people may also benefit from elevating their head and chest when they sleep.

Alcohol and cigarettes, including e-cigarettes, are both known to relax the esophageal sphincter, letting stomach acid through. A study in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism on alcohol and acid reflux concluded that while drinking any amount of alcohol did have the potential to increase reflux, drinking more at a time, and more frequently, was strongly associated with worse symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a symptom of which is chronic heartburn.

Heavy spice levels are common in many cuisines, but spicy foods are also a notorious trigger for heartburn. A survey study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences included 100 patients who had GERD. Of these, 85 patients were able to identify at least one food that triggered their symptoms. The most common trigger was spicy foods, which caused heartburn in 62 percent of people in the trial.

Acidic foods and drinks irritate the lining of the esophagus and can make it more inflamed. But again, which acidic foods and beverages trigger heartburn, and how big of an effect they have, depends on the person. Coffee is an acidic drink that often makes lists of foods to avoid if you have heartburn, but the research on this is mixed. One analysis, published in the journal Nutrients, showed that while one small study of 31 people found coffee to relax the lower esophageal sphincter and increase reflux, though it varied between types of coffee. The analysis included 30 studies overall and found no conclusive evidence that coffee is linked to higher occurrences of GERD.

Something we all do this time of year, eating too much during a meal has also been identified as a common trigger for heartburn. Six studies that included more than 34,000 people, published in the journal Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management, found that snacking at night and overeating were both associated with higher risk of heartburn.

Stop eating before you feel full to keep from eating too much and causing a bout of heartburn. Practice eating more frequent meals high in protein and fiber. Use smaller plates and bowls, and eat with your non-dominant hand to slow you down.


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