Most people will experience heartburn from time to time in their lives. Heartburn is caused by acid reflux, which occurs when acid from your stomach flows into your esophagus, which irritates your esophagus. Persistent acid reflux is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which generally requires medical treatment.
Whether you experience occasional heartburn or regularly occurring GERD, there are multiple ways to treat your condition. Treatment options include diet and lifestyle modifications, natural remedies, over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, and surgery. When your reflux is controlled, you can shift your focus to preventing future bouts of reflux.
What Causes Acid Reflux
Acid reflux has two main causes. First, a weak or damaged lower esophageal sphincter (LES). A properly functioning LES places pressure on the opening between the esophagus and the stomach to keep stomach acid contained within the stomach. Acid reflux occurs when the LES does not properly close, which allows acid to flow upward into your esophagus. Certain foods relax your LES and make reflux more likely. Additionally, an increase in stomach pressure may also cause your LES to open. The second common cause of reflux is overproduction of stomach acid. When there is excess acid in your stomach, it is more likely to flow back into your esophagus.
Reducing Your Risk
Often, the first line of defense in treating acid reflux is diet and lifestyle modifications. These modifications are also your best bet for reducing your risk for developing acid reflux in the future. Below we discuss various diet and lifestyle modifications for reducing acid reflux risk.
Manage Your Weight
Acid reflux is more common in individuals who have a body mass index in the overweight or obese category. Excess body weight, especially in your abdomen, increases the pressure on your stomach. This increased pressure may trigger the flow of stomach acid upward into your esophagus.
Focus on eating a well-balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats to both manage your weight and your reflux.
Avoid Trigger Foods
Many foods are known to make reflux symptoms worse. Whenever possible, limit or avoid these foods to minimize your reflux symptoms.
- High fat foods, including fried foods, high-fat meats, creamy sauces and dressings, processed snack foods, high-fat desserts, pizza, full-fat dairy products, oily and greasy foods, and butter
- Acidic fruits and vegetables including citrus fruits, pineapple, kiwi, and tomatoes
- Garlic and onions
- Spicy foods
Eat Smaller, More Frequent Meals
Large meals fill your stomach, which places pressure on your LES. Additionally, the larger your meal is, the more acid is required to digest that meal. Pressure on your LES, paired with increased acid is a recipe for reflux.
Instead of eating a few large meals daily, spread your food out into smaller, more frequent meals. This change allows your body to get the nutrients it needs each day without overloading your digestive system at any one time and causing you discomfort.
Another helpful tip is to eat and drink at different times. Instead of drinking most of your fluids with your meals, try to eat at meals and drink between meals to manage the total volume in your stomach at any one time.
Eating your largest meals earlier in the day is also beneficial for reflux management. Instead of eating a small breakfast, medium-sized lunch, and large dinner, try to eat your largest meals in the morning or midday to avoid being the fullest in the evening.
Remain Vertical After Eating
This recommendation relates to eating your largest meals earlier in the day. Experts also recommend to avoid laying down within two to three hours of eating. When your body is horizontal, it loses the benefit of gravity keeping your stomach acid in your stomach. Laying horizontal makes acid backflow into your esophagus more likely. Allow your body time to fully digest every meal or snack before you lay down.
Elevate Your Bed
Raising the head of your bed by six to eight inches helps your body use gravity to keep your stomach acid where it belongs overnight. We recommend a wedge-shaped pillow or support, as it raises your entire upper body. Simply adding extra pillows will only raise your head and will not provide the full benefit.
Smoking decreases pressure on your LES, which allows it to open and increases acid reflux symptoms. When you quit smoking, the pressure on your LES will normalize and reflux will resolve. If you are a smoker, it’s best to quit both for your acid reflux and your overall health. Additionally, secondhand smoke also increases acid reflux symptoms.
Rethink Your Drinks
Alcohol both relaxes your LES and stimulates stomach acid production, making it a common trigger for acid reflux. Additionally, alcohol is known to irritate your digestive tract, and increases inflammation in your gut.
Caffeine also triggers reflux by increasing stomach acid production. Limiting or avoiding caffeinated beverages including coffee, tea, and soda, or switching to decaffeinated versions is best for reflux prevention.
Additionally, carbonated drinks cause your stomach to expand, which increases the pressure in your stomach and on your LES. Avoiding carbonated beverages helps prevent acid leaking into your esophagus.
Wear Loose-Fitting Clothing
Tight clothing, especially clothing that is tight around your waist also increases pressure in your abdomen, which may trigger reflux. Tight belts are specifically known to make reflux worse. Wear clothing that fits comfortably to reduce additional discomfort associated with reflux.
Putting It All Together
Whether you experience occasional heartburn or persistent GERD it is uncomfortable. Treating your acid reflux to find relief is the first step. Reducing your risk for future acid reflux issues is key to optimal health long term. Managing your weight, shifting your eating schedule, quitting smoking, and other lifestyle factors can help you achieve and maintain relief.
If you are looking for more specific guidance to find your best eating pattern, our team of dietitians and nutritionists is here to help you build the acid reflux diet that can improve and even eliminate your heartburn symptoms!
Liz has been reading nutrition labels since she learned how to read. Growing up with severe peanut and tree nut allergies she learned that it’s important to know what you are putting into your body. She made her first big lifestyle change as a freshman in high school, when she decided to become a vegetarian. However, it wasn’t until she took a food class in Italy as part of a study abroad program in college that it clicked in her mind that she wanted to make food and nutrition her career. Liz graduated from Penn State University in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in Nutrition, as well as a bachelor's degree in Marketing. She completed her dietetic internship with Aramark in Philadelphia, and her master's degree at Northeastern University shortly after.