6 Things That Make Your Acid Reflux Worse

If you have acid reflux, how, what and when you eat may be contributing to uncomfortable digestive symptoms.

Eating should be enjoyable, so when you're stuck with some pretty bad acid reflux afterward, it can really affect your day. Depending on what and how you eat, it can lead to indigestion, where you might experience heartburn, an upset stomach or a weird taste in your mouth.

It can be difficult to know exactly what's causing acid reflux to act up in the first place, which affects how you treat it and prevent future attacks. Here are six things that are making your acid reflux worse, so you can prepare yourself in advance before your next meal.

Eating Too Quickly

"By eating too quickly and not taking the time to chew your food, you may experience symptoms of acid indigestion. The muscular reaction of the stomach to unchewed food, or even eating too much in one sitting, can upset normal peristalsis during digestion," explains Brooke Zigler, M.P.P., RDN. Peristalsis consists of wavelike muscular contractions that help to push food along the gastrointestinal tract. Essentially, this movement helps to push food down the GI tract, where you can digest it smoothly.

However, by eating too quickly, you might disrupt these contractions. "People who overeat or eat too quickly are likely to suffer from indigestion. When normal peristalsis is disrupted, someone may taste stomach acid and feel pain. This is when people typically take antacids or acid controllers," Zigler explains.

Taking the time to chew food more thoroughly and eating at a slower pace can help improve symptoms. "When it comes to chewing food, much of it depends on the type of food and how much chewing it actually involves (steak involves more chewing than a banana)," she explains.

"However, it's important to take the time to fully chew your food so that enough of the enzymes are produced in your mouth to fully break down your food," she says. Use your best judgment depending on what's on your plate.

Eating Large Meals

Sometimes having a large meal in one sitting can lead to acid reflux symptoms. The breastbone, or your chest, might start to feel irritated, and you may have symptoms of heartburn.

"When eating large meals and experiencing reflux, the acid and contents from your stomach come back up into your esophagus, irritating the sensitive lining. This results in the painful sensation known as heartburn," Zigler says.

A fix? Don't eat too much at any one time to make digestion easier. Eating smaller and more frequent meals throughout the day can help avoid reflux.

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Drinking Alcohol

Unfortunately, a glass of red wine may trigger your acid reflux symptoms, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. People who drink more regularly were found to have a 48% increased risk of experiencing reflux compared to those who don't drink or drink on occasion, according to a 2019 meta-analysis of 29 studies in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism.

There are several factors involved when it comes to alcohol, but part of it is that it can cause direct damage to the esophageal and gastric lining. It also relaxes the valve between the esophagus and stomach, and it may encourage the stomach to produce more acid, Zigler says.

Not Having a Healthy Weight

"Excess weight can increase the amount of pressure on the abdomen. As a result, the lower esophageal sphincter is more likely to allow the contents of the stomach to reflux into the esophagus," Zigler says, which can lead to discomfort after eating a meal.

If you have excessive weight or obesity, you may consider talking to your doctor about whether losing a modest amount of weight might help your reflux. According to the NIDDK, this is one lifestyle change that may lessen your symptoms.

Drinking Coffee

Yes, you might want to put down that cup of coffee or dark chocolate bar. "Caffeinated food and beverages can increase the acidity of gastric secretions. In order to decrease the acidity of these secretions, it is best to minimize the amount of caffeine in your diet," Zigler says.

Caffeine may also relax the lower esophageal sphincter, triggering acid reflux or making it worse. "However, a lot of it depends on the person and how sensitive they are to caffeine and acidic foods," she says. "Certain foods may trigger reflux in one person and not in another. It really comes down to the individual," she explains.

Beyond caffeinated foods and drinks, like coffee, dark chocolate, certain protein bars and energy drinks, acidic foods include citrus juices, tomatoes and soda, all of which can cause pain in someone when the esophagus is already inflamed, Zigler says.

Yet not all studies agree or have found the same results when it comes to caffeine and acidic foods in relation to worsening acid reflux, so it's best to go by how your body reacts. If it makes it worse, ditch it.

Eating Right Before Bed

It's not just how big the meal is, but also the timing. "If you're having a large meal right before going to sleep, you may not be giving yourself enough time for the food to properly digest, and a full stomach might be keeping you awake," Zigler says.

Instead of having a big dinner right before going to sleep, try having a meal containing both fiber and protein approximately three to four hours before bed. "This will give your body enough time to properly digest the food and will also provide you with a steady blood glucose level," she says. Also, don't lie down immediately after eating, as that may also result in heartburn or worsen acid reflux, she adds.

The Bottom Line

Acid reflux can be caused by a variety of factors, including how fast you eat, how much, when and what you're eating. By taking a close look at your habits, you may be able to identify the changes you can make so that mealtime becomes a comfortable—and enjoyable—experience again.

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