Uh-oh – here it comes again. You ate a big meal and now you’re paying for it. The burping, sour taste in the back of the throat, bloating, and feeling of pressure or pain behind the breastbone has become all too familiar. You are experiencing the uncomfortable, burning sensations of heartburn also known as acid reflux, and the corresponding symptom you feel when acid splashes up and out of the stomach back into the esophagus.
Before automatically reaching for a pill to take care of the problem, consider the fact that every medication has side effects. More than 15 million Americans use a class of drugs called proton pump inhibitors, or PPI’s to treat heartburn. However, these medications are now linked with a growing number of complications such as nutrient deficiencies, joint pain and infections to bone fractures, heart attacks, and dementia. This makes it more important than ever to at least consider an alternative approach, namely diet and lifestyle changes to help minimize symptoms and possibly even heal the damage already done.
How heartburn happens
There is a valve at the entrance to the stomach made up of a ring of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Normally once food passes from the esophagus through the LES entering into the stomach, the LES closes quickly and tightly not allowing the food to reverse course coming back up into the esophagus. But if the LES is weak or not closing completely, strong acid produced by the stomach can spatter back up into the esophagus causing an annoying burning sensation.
If heartburn is an infrequent occurrence, it usually does not cause problems. However if it is happening more than twice a week, you may have acid reflux disease also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and you should be seen by your physician to correctly diagnosis it.
Heartburn is probably the most common symptom usually involving a burning pain with a sour or bitter tasting acid backing up into your throat or mouth. Other symptoms could include bloating, burping, dysphagia or the sensation of food being stuck in your throat, hiccups that won’t let up, hoarseness, or a chronic sore throat.
Other causes of heartburn or acid reflux disease
There can be a number of causes resulting in acid reflux with one of the more common reasons being a hiatal hernia. A hiatal hernia is a condition in which part of the stomach pushes up through the diaphragm muscle which normally helps keep acid in our stomach preventing acid reflux.
Other common risk factors for acid reflux disease can be:
- Eating a large meal or lying down right after a meal
- Being overweight or obese
- Snacking close to bedtime
- Eating certain foods such as citrus, tomato, chocolate, mint, garlic, onions, or spicy or fatty foods
- Certain beverages such as alcohol, carbonated drinks, coffee or tea
- Taking aspirin, ibuprofen, certain muscle relaxers, or blood pressure medications
Natural treatments for heartburn
If medications are not alleviating the symptoms as much as you like, there are several lifestyle changes you can try that often help to treat acid reflux. Most are strategies involving dietary changes. Here are steps in addition to medication that can help:
- Avoid large meals – Eating large amounts of food increases the chance of reflux. Try eating several smaller meals throughout the day.
- Reduce total fat intake – Fried foods and foods high in fat can weaken the LES muscle in addition to staying too long in the stomach as they take longer to digest.
- Certain foods can weaken the LES muscle – chocolate, coffee, peppermint, spicy foods, carbonated beverages, citrus juices and tomato products.
- At the end of a meal, drink a small glass of water. This washes down and dilutes stomach acid that could backflow into the esophagus.
- Drink beverages that don’t promote heartburn – water, mineral water, noncitrus juice, decaffeinated tea, and nonfat or lowfat milk.
- Increase fiber – the more fiber you eat, the less likely you’ll experience heartburn. Include more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.
Nondietary modifications to try:
- Lose weight if overweight – excess weight can press against the stomach and increase the pressure going up toward the LES.
- Avoid wearing tight fitting clothing around the abdominal area.
- Don’t smoke
- Stay upright for at least 2 hours eating – Lying down can lead to the stomach contents splashing up toward the LES.
- Avoid exercise for at least 2 hours after eating.
- Avoid eating 3 hours before bedtime. Elevating the head of your bed 6 to 8 inches may prevent heartburn or try stacking extra pillows under your upper body may help too.