Most people have experienced heartburn, a burning feeling in the chest or throat, at some point. This common problem—also called “gastroesophageal reflux disease” (GERD) when it occurs on a regular basis—is caused by regurgitation or reflux of gastric acid into the esophagus, which connects the mouth and the stomach.
—Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D.
What triggers heartburn varies from one person to the next, but common causes include fatty foods, caffeine, chocolate and peppermint.
Your drink choices can bring on heartburn too. Drinking too much alcohol can irritate your stomach lining and relax your lower esophageal sphincter—the valve that prevents stomach acid from backing up into your esophagus. This can cause heartburn or bleeding. And people who drink carbonated soda are at higher risk of developing heartburn, especially at night, according to researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Sodas are high in acid and introduce carbon dioxide into the stomach.
Overeating or eating just before bed also can bring on heartburn. Eliminating these foods (or behaviors) one at a time can help you pinpoint—and then avoid—your individual triggers.
Here’s the good news: preventing heartburn isn’t just about avoiding triggers. There are actions you can take as well.
Enjoying one of life’s great pleasures is reason enough to linger over a good meal. But research suggests that eating at a leisurely pace has a practical benefit too. At the Medical University of South Carolina, 20 volunteers were invited to eat a 690-calorie meal consisting of a chicken burger, French fries and a 16-ounce soda on two separate days. The first meal they scarfed down in five minutes flat. The next occasion they consumed the food over a leisurely half hour. Episodes of heartburn were much less likely to occur when people ate slowly. One reason may be that the volunteers chewed more and produced more saliva, which neutralizes stomach acid.
Eating foods high in fiber may be protective. In a study published in the journal Gut, researchers found that people who consumed the most fiber had a 20 percent lower risk of experiencing serious heartburn. Previous studies have shown that high-fiber diets protect against the risk of cancer of the esophagus. “Fiber may help bind food and especially noxious substances in the stomach and prevent them from escaping back,” says lead researcher Hashem El-Serag.
Better yet, slowing down and eating more high-fiber foods could fight heartburn in another way. Weight-loss experts have long counseled dieters to eat more slowly so the stomach has time to signal when it’s full. There is good evidence that high-fiber diets help people feel full on fewer calories. If that in turn helps people shed pounds, it could also ease heartburn. “Being overweight or obese adds to the risk of gastric reflux because the extra weight puts pressure on the stomach,” says El-Serag, “making it more likely that food can be forced back into the esophagus.”
Walking can also ease heartburn, says El-Serag, probably simply because it keeps people upright and uses the force of gravity to keep food down. Stretching out on the sofa after a big meal is the worst thing you can do—for more than one reason. To squeeze more activity into your day, try these 6 Ways to Exercise Without Even Knowing It.