Heartburn and acid reflux can be painful reminders that your eating habits aren’t quite what they should be. But you may be surprised to learn it’s often more about how you eat than the food on your plate.
Almost everyone experiences heartburn once in a while. But if it happens often, then you’ve probably heard the well-intentioned warnings from family and friends: Don’t eat onions, avoid spicy foods, cut out the fried foods.
While there is some truth to these tips, experts say it’s more about how and when you eat than what you eat.
And there’s more good news, as finding a cure can be as simple as a few changes here and there. “Medications can help neutralize stomach acid, which helps reduce the risk of long-term damage to your esophagus,” explains Caitlin Griffin, RD, LD, a registered and licensed dietitian with Renown Health. “However, if you also change how and what you eat through diet and lifestyle, you may reduce reflux altogether.”
Cause #1: Eating large meals or too frequently. A recent study shows this is a big one, because the more food you eat, the more likely some of it will sneak up into your esophagus. Eating too frequently or at unusual times can have a similar effect.
Cure: Eat smaller meals on a schedule. Planning when and how much you eat each day can be critical to help eliminate your heartburn. Caitlin suggests you “aim for three smaller meals with snacks as needed” so you don’t let your stomach fill up too much.
Cause #2: Chowing down too close to bedtime. Eating within a couple hours of lying down (or even sitting back and reclining) can add to your symptoms.
Cure: Plan your eating and sleeping schedule. “Wait at least two hours after eating before lying down, and avoid eating large meals,” recommends Caitlin. By waiting a little longer to hit the sack, you’ll give yourself more time to digest. If your symptoms still don’t go away, you can raise the head of your bed about six inches and try sleeping on an incline.
Cause #3: Drinking too much alcohol. That beer, cocktail or glass of wine at the end of a long day may be adding to your acid reflux as well. Alcohol relaxes your lower esophageal sphincter – which helps keep the food in your stomach, well, in your stomach.
Cure: Watch your indulgences and drink more water. If you notice certain beverages like alcohol, soda, fruit juice or coffee are making your heartburn worse, it may be time to cut them out or try drinking them at different times. You can also add more water to your routine. Drinking water, especially alongside your meals, can help move stomach acid away from your esophagus and back down into your stomach.
Cause #4: High Body Mass Index (BMI). According to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, extra weight means your food isn’t digested as quickly, which creates pressure on your abdomen and can loosen your esophageal sphincter, leading to more reflux.
Cure: Lose a little weight. In this case, losing weight can have the added benefit of fewer heartburn episodes down the road. Along with moving your diet away from fatty foods, it’s important to find exercises that work for you. Keep in mind, certain exercises – like bending over to ride a bike – can aggravate your reflux.
In addition to those extra pounds, Caitlin says you should “avoid wearing tight clothes and belts to lessen pressure around your abdomen.”
Cause #5: Eating the wrong foods for you. “Although there are some common trigger foods – such as fatty or spicy food, citrus, peppermint, chocolate, tomato-based foods, chili, garlic and raw onions – not everyone is affected by these,” explains Caitlin.
Cure: Keep a food journal. That said, it’s best to watch what you eat and take notice when something causes reflux so you can avoid it in the future. “Starting a food journal to track your food and beverage intake and symptoms can be very helpful in pinpointing your triggers,” says Caitlin. Every time you experience symptoms, check what you ate, and see if there’s a pattern.
You can also work to add more fiber, vegetables and legumes and olive oil to your diet to help prevent heartburn.
More Common Heartburn Cures
Caitlin also suggests sitting up straight or walking around after meals, eating more slowly and quitting tobacco if you smoke.
If you continue to have symptoms for more than two weeks without relief from medication, you should see your doctor. “Symptoms include burning sensation in the chest, burping, regurgitation, stomach fullness or bloating, and/or upper abdominal discomfort,” says Caitlin.