Acid reflux, resulting in heartburn, is incredibly common these days. In fact, as many as 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month. So if you’re no stranger to some mad, fiery reflux—you are not alone! And, the great news is, there are ways to prevent and treat heartburn that have nothing to do with medications like PPIs or our old friend Pepto.
First things first though: what causes reflux exactly? And what do all those heartburn-adjacent terms—like GERD—really mean?
What is GERD? And how is it different from acid reflux?
Acid reflux happens when the stomach’s contents reverse course and move back up into the esophagus. Essentially, this is caused by a muscle at the end of the esophagus—called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES)—which is supposed to be a one-way valve that closes after food passes through. However, when it doesn’t close correctly or tightly…hello, fiery, burning sensation (aka heartburn).
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (or GERD) is a more severe, chronic form of acid reflux. It’s not considered GERD unless it happens more than twice a week. When it’s a chronic occurrence like this, reflux can lead to inflammation, ulceration, and narrowing of the esophagus, so it’s important to get GERD under control before it leads to more complicated health issues.
Common trigger foods
If you’ve suffered from heartburn in the past, you may have seen this list before. But it bears repeating: Be cautious of these foods; they can relax the LES and trigger or worsen reflux symptoms. However, just as we’re all individuals with individual biologies, not all of these foods may be triggers for you—while others not included here certainly might be! Listen to your body and get to know your own unique triggers. In the meantime, use this list as a starting point:
- High-fat foods
- Tomatoes and citrus
- Garlic and onions
- Spicy foods
- Carbonated drinks
Also, more and more research is pointing towards poor digestion and malabsorption of carbohydrates as a cause of reflux as well. If carbs seems to spark heartburn for you, you may want to assess your sugar intake and upgrade your carbs to the higher fiber, slower digested variety (see below).
12 natural strategies to prevent & manage heartburn
In addition to avoiding the above foods, there are a number of lifestyle and dietary changes you can make to keep the burn at bay. So before you reach for an antacid, give these natural solutions a shot:
1. Identify your personal triggers
This one’s a biggie. It’s very important that you take some time to figure out and notice patterns in your heartburn symptoms. You may consider doing an elimination protocol to help sift out this information.
2. Up your fiber intake
Increasing the fiber in your diet, especially by eating more (non-citrus) fruits and vegetables, may protect against GERD. Plus, it can reduce cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar. Win-win-win.
3. Eat smaller, balanced meals
Large, heavy meals can put extra pressure on the LES, causing reflux. Avoid overeating and make sure you’re eating good, whole foods: high-quality protein, fruits, veggies, and healthy fats. Oh, and, as always, steer clear of refined grains and sugars.
4. Sloooow down your eating and chew thoroughly
Eating too quickly? (Guilty!) The first step of the digestion process actually happens in our mouths—so don’t rush it. Chew slowly, enjoy your food. This will signal to your brain that it’s time to digest, and get those digestive juices flowing.
5. Supplement your diet with probiotics, digestive enzymes, and/or HCL
A large part of the heartburn-healing equation comes down to improving gut health. For many, that means adding probiotics or digestive enzymes to their diet. You may choose to take a daily probiotic pill (I recommend the Renew Life brand), or simply eat more probiotic-rich foods, like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, apple cider vinegar and kombucha. Taking digestive enzymes can also help your stomach to digest food more easily and absorb nutrients properly. HCL, or supplemental stomach acid, may also help with better digestion, however, talk to a practitioner before taking to ensure it would be beneficial for you.
6. Drink liquids between, not during, meals
Drinking while eating can dilute your digestive enzymes, making it harder for your body to break down food and absorb nutrients properly.
7. Eat more anti-inflammatory foods
Foods like turmeric, cinnamon, fennel, and ginger (I like adding slices to my hot water in the mornings) are all anti-inflammatory and can help soothe the digestive system and ease heartburn symptoms.
8. Stay upright after eating
Keep your body upright for at least two hours after eating.
9. Don’t eat too close to bedtime
Avoid eating within three to four hours of going to bed.
10. Tweak your sleeping position
Raise the head of your bed four to six inches to reduce reflux while you’re sleeping.
11. Move your body & manage your stress
Stress can wreak havoc on digestion. Make sure that you’re managing yours—prioritize your self-care and make time for relaxation and fun. Moving your body regularly, in whatever way feels best to you, helps improve digestion as well.
12. Protect your throat
If you’re experiencing heartburn flare-ups, protect your throat by sipping on a tea that has licorice root and/or slippery elm. You may even consider taking deglycyrrhizinated licorice 20 minutes before eating.
I also highly recommend keeping a journal of your personal triggers—and successful prevention strategies—so you can learn what works best for your body in managing heartburn symptoms—and preventing them from flaring up again in the future!
Why PPIs aren’t the long-term answer
Ok, so why go through the trouble of addressing heartburn naturally? What about PPIs (proton pump inhibitors) like Prilosec or Prevacid? A little real talk on these quick-fix medications: They may alleviate heartburn symptoms, but they don’t get to the root cause. Not to mention, research is now showing these medications can cause more harm than good over the long term—with prolonged use, they can mess with our gut bacteria, cause malabsorption of nutrients, and even increase the risk of heart issues. Plus, they actually inhibit stomach acid secretion, which is usually NOT what your body needs when it’s dealing with heartburn.
If you want to truly heal from heartburn, the key is to identify your personal food triggers, balance your gut bacteria, and tweak your diet and lifestyle to help your stomach produce enough acid.
Please reach out if you have any questions about this or are looking for support in the healing process. Or leave your comments below!