How to Prevent Heartburn

PHOTO: Following a few simple steps could help you combat heartburn -- or prevent it altogether.
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If you've ever had the unfortunate experience of heartburn—when food and stomach acid travel the wrong way, creating a burning sensation in your esophagus—you know that it's as miserable as it sounds. What heartburn can lead to is equally unpleasant, including fiery chest aches and halitosis. It's not pretty, but luckily, there's a lot you can do to prevent heartburn in the first place, with these easy tips.

Know Your Food Enemies

Vast is the spectrum of foods that can trigger digestive problems: spicy foods, chocolate, peppermint, citrus, tomato-based foods, mustard, chili, and raw onions are all thought to irritate the lining of the esophagus. But what's the major dietary factor in causing reflux? "Eating large, fatty meals," says Jeffrey Alexander, MD, head of the Esophageal Clinic at the Mayo Clinic. That's because fat softens the sphincter muscles, which seal off the lower esophagus. Without a tight seal, stomach acids can back up into it. Be sure to eat foods rich in fiber, the dinner of choice for gut-friendly bacteria. Chow down on at least 20 grams of fiber a day in foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Just add it in gradually to prevent bloating.

Read more: Heart-Healthy Weeknight Dinners

Be Wary of Beverages

Carbonated beverages, fruit juices, alcohol, and even your morning java can contribute to heartburn." Caffeine relaxes the esophageal sphincter, which allows acid to come up in the throat," says Amy Gross, MPH, RD, CDN and a clinical dietician at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Keep track of which beverages affect you with a food journal on in a file on your cell phone or computer.

Eat Less, Burn Less

Overweight people tend to be the ones with digestive issues. "Increasing body mass index is associated with increased reflux, especially in the case with truncal obesity: big bellies," Dr. Alexander says. The best lifestyle adjustment you can make is to cut down on fatty foods and lose weight. Exercise is important, he says, but certain exercises, like riding a bike bent over, aggravate reflux. Work out in a way that feels comfortable to you.

Stock Your Medicine Cabinet

If you know you get heartburn, don't wait until the telltale signs arrive before popping a pill. Proton pump inhibitors, some of which are available over the counter like Prilosec OTC, are the more potent acid blockers, but they take a while to start working. "Those are medicines to use to prevent reflux," Dr. Alexander says. For quicker relief, over-the-counter antacids like Maalox and Tums buffer the acid in your esophagus, but they only last for a few minutes, Dr. Alexander says. Histamine 2 (H2) blockers like Zantac and Pepcid block acid after about 20 minutes and can suppress acid from 6-12 hours. "Pop a Tums as well as a Pepcid to control it right away," Dr. Alexander says.

Read more: Your Guide to a Happy, Healthy Tummy

Strategize On Sleep

What's the worst time to start counting sheep? Directly after a big, boozy meal. "People tend to get heartburn when they overeat and lay down," Dr. Alexander said. Wait at least a couple hours before sleep, he says, or take an H2 blocker before you go to bed on the nights you eat late.

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