Feeling the ’burn?
One in three Americans regularly experience acid reflux. Try these food- and lifestyle-based strategies to tame the flame.
Hand sanitizer and toilet paper aren’t the only products flying off shelves lately. Heartburn medications are also more in demand than ever, as reports of acid reflux—when stomach acid or food flows back up into the esophagus, causing symptoms like chest pain or that on-fire feeling in your throat—are on the rise nationwide. Experts like Carolyn Newberry, M.D., co-director of Weill Cornell Medical College’s Innovative Center for Health and Nutrition in Gastroenterology in New York City, say factors contributing to this spike include changing eating patterns, weight gain and less physical activity.
Over-the-counter and prescription acid-suppressive medications can help. But wariness of long-term use and potential side effects (including nutrient deficiencies and loss of bone density) have more people seeking nonpharmacologic therapies, says Newberry. Here are four habits to add to your reflux-reducing repertoire.
1 Eat Dinner Early
Your body depends in part on gravity to help move food through your digestive tract, says Leila Kia, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Medicine’s Digestive Health Center in Chicago. Avoid eating within three hours of hitting the hay, since lying down can allow stomach acid to travel up into the esophagus more easily. Kia also recommends either elevating your upper body with an under-the-mattress wedge or using 6-inch risers to lift the head of your bed. Need to eat closer to bedtime? Keep your meal modest, says Kia, as large meals take longer to digest and increase pressure in the stomach that can drive acid upward.
2 Join Club Med Researchers at New York Medical College reviewed two years of patient charts and found that those who were instructed to follow a plant-forward Mediterranean diet had the same reduction in acid reflux symptoms as those who were prescribed proton pump inhibitors like Prilosec. Lead study author Craig Zalvan, M.D., FACS, explains that, unlike animal proteins, plant-based protein is not easily broken down in the stomach— often being absorbed in the intestines—and thus reduces the amount of acid that’s produced during digestion.
3 Know Your Triggers Tomato sauce, red wine, caffeine, fizzy drinks, mint and spicy, fatty or fried foods have long been termed refluxogenic for their heartburn-inducing tendencies. But recent research suggests they may not be as universally problematic as once thought. Rather than swearing off pizza forever, Newberry suggests eliminating one of these common triggers at a time to see if your symptoms improve. Since giving up a food you love can be a bummer, try swapping in an alternative, like using flavorful herbs instead of red pepper flakes.
4 Keep It Moving
Engaging in 30 minutes or more of moderate-tovigorous exercise each day may prevent reflux, even among those who manage symptoms with medication, suggests a 2021 cohort study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Physical activity not only supports gut health, it may also help stomach acid clear more efficiently post-meal, says lead study author Raaj Mehta, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Breathing hard also strengthens the diaphragm muscles that surround and support the lower esophageal sphincter, the gateway between the esophagus and your stomach.