Heartburn has affected most people at some point in their life, whether they knew exactly what it was or not. The discomfort of heartburn can range from a minor ache to intense pain. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once per month. Yikes!
Heartburn is the pain felt as a result of acid reflux, which is when the contents of your stomach push up into your esophagus. Your stomach has a special lining to protect it from its acid, but the esophagus does not (hence the pain). While Heartburn is a fairly common symptom, it’s important to realize the difference between a normal, infrequent irritation and a more serious condition.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD is the medical diagnosis given to people who experience this type of reflux on a chronic basis. Diagnosis of GERD may be based on symptoms or confirmed with imaging or pH tests. Those at biggest risk for GERD include those who are overweight or obese, pregnant women, individuals with connective tissue disorders, or anyone with physical stomach abnormalities such as a hiatal hernia or slow gastric emptying.
While individuals with GERD may require long-term medication use or even surgery to manage their symptoms, there are quite a few lifestyle modifications that can help improve symptoms for both GERD sufferers and the occasional heartburner alike.
Lets start with a few of the most important and often most difficult lifestyle factors to adjust:
Lose weight if you need to. Extra bodyweight presses on the body’s internal organs, which can actually squeeze stomach contents into the esophagus. Relieving that pressure can offer significant relief from heartburn.
Quit smoking. Smoking relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter (or rubber band like ring that closes off the top of your stomach). When that sphincter is relaxed or loose, it’s easy for reflux to occur. Just another great reason to give up smoking.
Adjust your sleeping habits. Elevating the head of your bed can put you in a sleeping position to keep your stomach contents where they belong. Think of your esophagus like a water pipe: keep it flat and the water may settle in the middle. Tilt it a bit, and the water will flow down the pipe as it should.
Change your wardrobe. High wasted jeans and leggings may be in style, but they often have a tight band that presses in just the wrong place. If you tend to wear these types of pants or a tight belt, try wearing something a little looser to relieve any unnecessary pressure on the upper stomach.
Now that that’s out of the way…lets talk diet! Woo hoo my favorite! Here are some diet changes to help prevent heartburn from occurring:
Eat smaller meals. Keeping the stomach from filling up too much can reduce the amount of acid secreted and prevent spillage of those contents into the esophagus.
Skip the midnight snack. Never eat right before sleeping or lying down. Remember, your esophagus is a pipe to the stomach. Don’t let what you just ate flow back up and cause the burn. Try to stay upright at least an hour after eating.
Limit spicy or acidic foods. Hot peppers, tomatoes, and citrus fruits don’t actually cause gastric reflux. However, by their own nature can irritate the lining of the esophagus causing heartburn pain. Limit spicy foods if they seem to cause symptoms.
Go easy on caffeine. Caffeine, like smoking, can loosen the lower esophageal sphincter. Try limiting some major caffeine sources like coffee, tea, chocolate, and soft drinks.
Choose fatty foods wisely. Fats require added digestion, meaning they remain in the stomach for a long period. This includes all fats, from donuts and fried chicken to olive oil and avocados. Extra time spent in the stomach increases the likelihood of acid spilling into the esophagus. Healthy fats are a vital part of a well rounded diet…just don’t eat large amounts at once. Spread them out throughout the day – half an avocado now, half later.
Watch out for mint. Mint has been shown to loosen the lower esophageal sphincter too; looking at you, candy canes and Altoids. Researchers say chewing gum may actually improve heartburn, but it’s best to avoid the minty kind.
Minimize alcohol use. Alcohol is another sphincter-loosening culprit. Some people are more sensitive to this than others, but it can never hurt to stick to the recommended 1 beverage per day for women and 2 beverages per day for men.
So, now you know how to prevent heartburn, but let’s say it’s too late. You’ve eaten a plate of fatty spicy nachos with a side of acidic salsa and washed it all down with few margaritas. You’re feeling the burn. The unfortunate news is there aren’t any proven fast-acting nutrition remedies. Here’s what you can try:
Water: Try sitting up straight and drinking a glass of water. Water can help dilute the stomach acid that’s irritating your esophagus and flush things in the right direction.
Medications: Antacids like Tums, Alka-Seltzer, or Pepto-Bismol neutralize stomach acid and offer temporary relief. Keyword here being “temporary”. Antacids are typically not intended to be long-term solutions. On the other hand, H2 blockers (like Pepcid) or PPI’s (like Prilosec) reduce the amount of acid your stomach secretes, and are sometimes used longer-term. Note: this is purely informational and not intended as a recommendation - never start any kind of medication without direction from your doctor.
Go back in time: If only….Your best bet is to try and prevent heartburn from happening in the first place. If you know a certain food or action causes you heartburn, simply do your best to avoid it.
Nutrition Technique: heartburn affects almost everyone on occasion, but there are easy ways to try and minimize it. The most important steps: lose weight if you need to and stop smoking. Adjust your lifestyle by eating right, elevating your head at night, and wearing non-restrictive clothing. When it comes to diet, eat smaller meals, avoid caffeine and alcohol, and limit the spicy, fatty, or acidic foods that cause symptoms. See your doctor if you aren’t able to control your heartburn, as you may be facing something more serious.
As always, eating food that is best for your body is the key to success!
Amy Jones, MS, RDN, LD