You’re relaxing after a busy day, munching on salsa and tortilla chips while streaming your favorite show. Then, heartburn strikes and puts a damper on your evening. It’s like having a fire burning in your chest, and you wish you could put it out.
Heartburn is uncomfortable, especially when you’re not sure why your symptoms feel worse sometimes. Let’s explore what causes heartburn, what it feels like, and what foods you should eat (and avoid) to keep those flames at bay.
How does acid reflux cause heartburn?
You’ve just devoured a delicious slice of pepperoni pizza, and then you feel a burning sensation creeping up your esophagus. That’s acid reflux, which causes heartburn. Heartburn happens when stomach acid flows back into your esophagus, causing irritation and that uncomfortable feeling in the center of your chest.
Sometimes, heartburn is just a temporary annoyance after a spicy meal or a late-night snack. But for some people, it can be a chronic condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In GERD, the lower esophageal sphincter, a ring of muscles that normally keeps stomach acid where it belongs, becomes weak or relaxes at the wrong time.
How do I know if I have heartburn?
Heartburn is a fiery sensation rising from your stomach towards your throat. You might also experience a sour or bitter taste in your mouth. Some people mistake it for a heart attack due to the discomfort it can cause. That’s why you need to recognize the signs of heartburn and how to help yourself feel better.
What foods make acid reflux worse?
Some common culprits worsen heartburn symptoms in most people. Spicy foods like hot wings, salsa and curry may make your taste buds dance, but they may also set your heartburn ablaze. Greasy foods high in saturated and trans fats foods like fried chicken, burgers and cheesy nachos can also trigger heartburn. Garlic and onions can also cause heartburn because they increase acidity in the stomach.
Caffeine lovers, brace yourselves! Your beloved coffee, tea and chocolate can also be heartburn troublemakers because they stimulate the production of stomach acid. Alcohol and carbonated beverages like soda and sparkling water can also trigger acid reflux. And if you’re a citrus aficionado, be cautious with oranges, lemons and pineapples because these acidic fruits can irritate your sensitive esophagus. Tomatoes are also high in citric acid, which can aggravate acid reflux.
If you can’t live without these foods and beverages, don’t worry. You just need a strategy to minimize the chances that what you eat will trigger heartburn. For example, if you’re craving a delicious salad full of citrusy fruits, or a juicy burger and crispy French fries:
- Aim to eat acid-reflux-causing foods in small portions, and earlier in the day rather than late at night or right before bed.
- Pair acid-reflux-causing foods with foods that can help make heartburn symptoms better.
- Manage food-related heartburn naturally by drinking alkaline water, not laying down after you eat, and wearing loose clothes — especially around your stomach.
Speak with your doctor about occasional heartburn prevention so you can enjoy the foods you like in moderation. See a gastroenterologist if you have persistent heartburn that does not improve from diet changes, a family history of gastrointestinal conditions, or heartburn with swallowing issues or weight loss.
What foods help with heartburn?
Cool your heartburn with low-acid and fiber-rich foods such as whole grains and vegetables. Oatmeal, whole wheat bread and brown rice help absorb and neutralize stomach acid and reduce your chances of experiencing that dreaded burn. Add banana to your oatmeal for the ultimate low-acid meal.
Love fruit salad but feel the burn if it’s filled with citrus? Load your salad with melons, such as cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon, which are heartburn-friendly and refreshing.
Green veggies including broccoli, green beans and celery are all low in acid. Just consider how you’re preparing them and avoid heavy dressings, spices and dips which can contribute to heartburn.
Baked or grilled lean meats, such as skinless chicken and turkey, are great protein choices that shouldn’t provoke heartburn. If you’re a seafood enthusiast, go ahead and enjoy grilled fish like salmon or tuna.
When it comes to beverages, swap that cup of java for a soothing cup of herbal (caffeine-free) tea, like chamomile or ginger tea. These teas can help soothe your irritated esophagus. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help dilute stomach acid and keep your digestive system happy.
Related content: Can staying hydrated by drinking water really help you live longer?
Heartburn is an uncomfortable, burning feeling in your chest caused by acid reflux. Spicy, greasy foods high in fat are common heartburn triggers, as well as garlic, onions and citrus fruits. Caffeine and carbonated beverages can also aggravate heartburn symptoms. Aim to eat high-fiber, whole-grain foods that absorb stomach acid, such as oatmeal, green veggies and melons. If your favorite foods cause heartburn, speak with your doctor about ways to still enjoy them such as having small portions, not eating before bed and drinking plenty of water.
Dr. Suma Magge is a board-certified gastroenterologist. She specializes in esophageal conditions including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and esophageal motility such as achalasia. She also treats a wide range of gastrointestinal conditions including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, liver disease and gastroenterological issues facing women. Book now with Dr. Magge.