If you’ve ever felt burning, warmth or pain behind your breastbone, you may have been experiencing symptoms of heartburn as a result of acid reflux. These symptoms most often come after you eat or at night when you’re trying to sleep. The good news is, there are steps you can take to get relief!

Q: What are some tips for relieving symptoms of heartburn from acid reflux?

A: From MashaFox-Rabinovich, MA, RD, LDN, CDE, outpatient dietitian at Washington Adventist Hospital, and by Katherine Lambert, nutrition volunteer:

Understanding Acid Reflux

Heartburn or acid reflux, also known at gastrointestinal reflux disease or GERD, is an uncomfortable and often painful condition caused by stomach acid backing up into the esophagus.  According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, more than 60 million Americans experience GERD at least once a month, and 15 million have it daily.

Causes of Acid Reflux

It is important to understand that GERD is not caused by too much stomach acid, but instead caused by stomach acid in the wrong place.  When your digestion is functioning normally, a valve between your esophagus and stomach (the lower esophageal sphincter or LES) opens briefly to let food pass into the highly acidic environment of the stomach and then it tightly closes.  In some cases of acid reflux, the LES opens too often or does not close tightly.  Another common reason for reflux is weakened gut function that does not properly remove the digestive enzymes and stomach acid away from the esophagus.  Either way, it creates a burning sensation as stomach acid makes contact with the unprotected lining of the esophagus.

Using antacids or taking acid blocking medications for extended periods of time may lead to nutrition-related concerns, such asdecreased levels of calcium, magnesium, and zinc; iron deficiency; vitamin B12 deficiency; and increased risk of developing osteoporosis, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, pneumonia, and bacterial overgrowth.   If you are considering stopping use of prescription acid blockers, be sure to consult with your doctor before doing so. It is best to wean off of these medications slowly as there might be a rebound effect causing an overproduction of acid.

The causes for GERD can vary from person to person, especially when it comes to diet.  Find out what is causing your symptoms and avoid or eliminate those foods.

Some common foods that cause the LES to relax (what you don’t want!) and lead to heart burn symptoms include:

  • Tomatoes and tomato sauces
  • Citrus fruits
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Chocolate
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Peppermint (for some)

Additionally, the following are some known factors causing GERD for many people:

  • Stress – plays a huge role
  • Obesity – puts pressure on the stomach
  • Overeating – also puts pressure on the stomach
  • Foods high in fats and oils (especially animal fats and fried foods)
  • Smoking  – which relaxes the LES and increases stomach acid
  • Some medications – including antihistamines, calcium channel blockers, pain relievers like ibuprofen and aspirin, bisphosphonates, anticholinergics and others.  Check with your doctor to see if medications might be a factor for you.

Relief for Acid Reflux

Here are some tips from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for avoiding GERD:

  • Eat in a calm, relaxed place. Sit down while you eat.
  • Exercise at least three or four times each week.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Raise the head of your bed 6 to 9 inches. You can put a foam wedge under the top part of the mattress or prop up the legs on the head of the bed with wooden blocks. (Stacking pillows is not effective.)
  • Wait three hours after eating before lying down.
  • Eat several small meals throughout the day.

Look out for more healthy tips from our resident dietitian, coming soon! Do you have questions about food or dieting? We’d like to hear from you! Please share your questions in the comments section below.