Discomfort after eating can spoil even the best of meals, whether it's from bloating, brain fogginess, or gas. But the most common complaint is arguably the worst: acid reflux, often referred to as heartburn. And while they're used pretty interchangeably, it's worth noting that heartburn is actually just one manifestation of acid reflux, though it often overlaps with other symptoms (for example, regurgitation and indigestion).
As anyone who suffers from recurring acid reflux can contest, it's not a fun feeling—in fact, it can be quite debilitating. By definition, it's basically a result of your esophagus being irritated by stomach acid, which causes a burning pain that can be so severe it's mistaken for a heart attack. More mild to moderate cases of acid reflux and heartburn can result in symptoms like scratchiness in the throat, tightness in the chest, the sensation of food being stuck in your throat, difficulty breathing, persistent hiccuping, and burping or nausea, but typically without the actual relief.
To learn about how acid reflux works, what causes it, and what easy lifestyle changes can help prevent heartburn, we reached out to dietitian Abigail Kinnear, RDN, of blog Nutrition Traveller. Read on to hear what habits and foods help with heartburn below to get your gut back on track.
What Heartburn Actually Is
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, it can help to understand the anatomy behind acid reflux and heartburn. Basically, Kinnear explains, "Heartburn occurs when the sphincter muscle that separates the esophagus and the stomach (lower esophageal sphincter, or LES) isn't working properly, which allows stomach acid to enter the esophagus." Normally, your LES is supposed to help move food down into the stomach as well as keep food from re-entering your esophagus. If the LES isn't able to sufficiently tighten, it doesn't do a good job of keeping stomach acids from rising up the esophagus and into the gullet.
It's also worth noting that stomach acids on their own and in their rightful place are more helpful than harmul—their job is to break down food and protect against pathogens we may ingest. They don't cause stomach pain because the stomach is lined with a protective barrier. The esophagus, on the other hand, is not built to support these acids, which is why it burns.
Habits That Can Worsen Heartburn
There are two types of risk factors: long-term and short-term. Some of the short-term factors that increase heartburn include things like eating too fast or eating too close to bedtime and lying down, eating super-heavy meals, eating meals that are high in fat content, drinking alcohol, carbonated drinks, tea, or coffee, and taking certain over-the-counter medications, including aspirin and ibuprofen. Some of the longer-term factors that can also increase the risk of experiencing heartburn include smoking, pregnancy, and obesity, Kinnear tells us.
Foods That Can Worsen Heartburn
Like all health issues, the solution isn't one-size-fits-all. While foods that trigger heartburn vary from person to person, one of the common triggers is high-fat foods because they relax the lower esophageal sphincter, which causes the stomach acid to move back into the esophagus. Kinnear also says to pay attention to your body's reaction when you eat tomatoes and citrus, as these high-acid foods can also cause heartburn. This is especially true when you eat them on an empty stomach. The same is true for spicy foods, garlic, onion, and caffeinated drinks.
Lifestyle Changes That Calm and Prevent Heartburn
Whether you have chronic acid reflux or you've just been experiencing the occasional bout, there are a few lifestyle habits that can help to calm, prevent, and even reduce heartburn. Some of Kinnear's suggestions include things like eating smaller, more frequent meals instead of one large meal, which will get your sphincter muscle moving more regularly without requiring too much strength. She also advises avoiding meals right before bedtime or lying down, and avoiding alcohol, aspirin, ibuprofen, caffeine, and cigarettes, and last but not least, try elevating your head when sleeping with a stack of pillows.
Another good way to help manage heartburn is by chewing gum. "The saliva neutralizes stomach acid and also stimulates swallowing, which helps to clear the stomach acid from your esophagus," Kinnear explains. And if severe symptoms persist, it's best to speak with a doctor about medications and other solutions. And if heartburn has already kicked in, change into some loose, comfortable clothes so you aren't forcing your body to restrict.
Foods That Can Calm and Prevent Heartburn
While it isn't a sure-fire way to prevent heartburn, there are certain foods that may be less likely to trigger it. For example, most vegetables are generally not considered acidic foods, so opting for fresh veggies instead of acidic fruits can a helpful adjustment. Some good options include cabbage, beets, corn, mushrooms, and broccoli, according to Kinnear. And as far as fruits go, you should definitely opt for low-acid fruits likes melons and bananas. If you eat meat, Kinnear recommends choosing leaner meats and then cooking them with less fat, such as grilling, baking, poaching, or broiling.
You could also try making a soothing elixir at home with hot water and ginger or a dash of baking soda, which helps neutralize the stomach acids since it has an alkaline pH.