Often described as a painful burning feeling in the chest or throat, heartburn affects more than 60 million people, according to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG). “What happens when you have reflux is that stomach contents (including acid and bile) go back up into your esophagus,” explains Laura Manning, MPH, RD, clinical nutrition coordinator at the Susan and Leonard Feinstein IBD Clinical Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Usually, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) serves as a tight valve separating your stomach and esophagus, but when that muscle becomes weak, stomach contents can flow back up — triggering a burning sensation in the chest and a sour, bitter taste in the throat and mouth.
Here, RDs weigh in on 11 eating habits that could be causing or exacerbating your heartburn and share practical fixes. If you’re experiencing heartburn more than twice a week or it’s interfering with your everyday life, it’s a good idea to see your doctor, says Manning.
ADDING TOO MUCH ACID
A drizzle of lemon or lime can serve as the perfect finishing touch for gazpacho or an orzo veggie salad. But if you down too much OJ or pile on the salsa, you may irritate your esophagus and trigger heartburn. “The effect of acidic fruits and vegetables (Think: oranges and tomatoes) on heartburn tends to be more person-specific, but it’s still a common culprit,” says Claudia Gumina, RD.
The fix: To find out what’s causing your heartburn, keep a food journal noting what you eat and any symptoms that arise. After you identify a potential culprit, consider taking a few weeks off from the offending food or beverage, then reintroduce it slowly to better assess its effects, Gumina advises.
HEAPING ON HOT SAUCE
Sriracha may be to blame for that burning in your chest and even disrupted sleep. In fact, some of the most common triggers are highly spicy dishes like curries with lots of hot peppers, says Manning. Nearly 90% of patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease symptoms claim spicy foods trigger their heartburn.
The fix: The next time you go out to eat, order your dish ‘mild’ or prep your own meals for better control of just how much spice goes in, advises Jennifer Lease, RD.
Caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, energy drinks and soda are also very acidic, says Manning, and when they irritate your esophagus they can worsen heartburn symptoms.
While peppermint oil has shown promise as a treatment for gastrointestinal ailments like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), one side effect may be heartburn, shows a review in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics. “Peppermints are interesting because they can actually work as a muscle relaxer on the GI tract,” explains Manning. “Consuming peppermint relaxes that lower esophageal sphincter and can actually make digestion worse.”
The fix: If peppermint tea or mints seem to exacerbate your symptoms, consider cutting them out. Instead, try another type of calming tea such as chamomile.
INDULGING IN HAPPY HOUR
Alcohol is another muscle relaxer which can loosen up your LES, allowing reflux to flow up your esophagus, explains Manning. Drinking causes reflux symptoms in healthy people and even more so in heavy drinkers, found a study in Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Disease.
The fix: If you’re prone to reflux post-cocktail hour, stick to one or two drinks, Manning suggests. If you have a more severe case of heartburn, though, you may need to cut back even further and switch to non-alcoholic beverages.
FILLING UP ON HIGH-FAT FOODS
“High-fat foods may increase feelings of heartburn as they are digested more slowly than lower fat options, making food stay in the stomach for longer,” explains Gumina. “The more food there is in the stomach, the more likely reflux or acid backup will occur.”
The fix: While healthy fats are part of a well-balanced diet, it’s a good idea to cut back on less-healthy ones such as fried foods and extra creamy dressings. Making the switch from whole milk to 1% or skim milk and opting for broth-based as opposed to cream-based soups can also help, says Lease.
Hit up the all-you-can-eat buffet, and heartburn may also be on the menu. Simply eating too much is one of the most common culprits for heartburn, says Manning, as you overload your digestive system and set yourself up for stomach acid backup. Even a single large meal may cause heartburn to arise.
The fix: One way to break a cycle of overeating is to “focus on consuming small, frequent meals versus three large meals per day. This limits the food load in your stomach, preventing its contents from flowing back into your esophagus,” says Gumina. Rather than skipping meals, “having a small snack before a meal can help decrease hunger levels so you don’t overeat,” adds Manning.
WEARING TOO TIGHT CLOTHING
Wearing tight pants when you go out to eat may seem like a great plan to avoid overeating, but it can also trigger heartburn. “If you have a belt or waistband that is particularly snug, that will irritate reflux by disrupting the flow of digestion because it’s pressing against the stomach,” explains Manning.
The fix: Make sure you are wearing comfortable clothing, not the jeans you have to squeeze into, says Manning. This will help you better reach your health goals in the long-term.
GOING FOR A POST-MEAL RUN
Proper fuel is key for a challenging workout, but if you still have food in your stomach, it could drum up reflux. “This is most common in people who are running or moving with a jarring up-and-down motion, as stomach contents can come up more frequently,” says Manning.
The fix: Make sure to leave time to digest pre-workout and don’t skip the warmup, says Manning. What’s more, going for a walk after a meal can help stimulate your GI tract for speedier digestion, she adds.
Many people are guilty of eating lying down in bed or stretched out on the sofa. However, “when you lay down, your digestion becomes horizontal, but you want it to be vertical to prevent backup of acid,” says Lease. Because digestion moves from top to bottom, your goal is to aid gravity, not fight it, to avoid heartburn.
The fix: “Make an effort to sit at the table, eat slowly and mindfully, chewing food thoroughly and without distractions,” advises Lease.
EATING RIGHT BEFORE BED
While scheduling an early dinner can be tough, sleeping within three hours of eating is one of the greatest risk factors for recurring heartburn, finds a study in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. “Generally, we recommend not eating too close to bedtime,” says Lease. “You want the last meal that you eat to be at least 2–3 hours before going to bed to allow for complete digestion.”
The fix: Choose something light and easy-to-digest for dinner, especially if you eat later at night, suggests Manning. Opt for cooked veggies instead of raw ones and leaner proteins like fish or chicken.