Why Lifestyle Changes Can Reduce Chronic Heartburn Symptoms

Quitting smoking and avoiding food triggers can reduce GERD symptoms

woman eating sandwich
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Making lifestyle changes will often improve the effects of chronic heartburn. Habits, from the way we dress to the way we sleep to what and when we eat, can determine how frequently we suffer from acid reflux and how severe those episodes will be. Making changes in our lifestyles can give us some control over these heartburn episodes.

Changing What and When You Eat

Eat smaller, more frequent meals. Large meals expand your stomach and increase upward pressure against the lower esophageal sphincter, and make it hard for it to stay closed.

Don't lie down for about three hours after you eat. When you lie down within three hours of eating, the stomach acid that is working to digest your food may flow up into your esophagus causing heartburn. Gravity helps to keep the stomach juices from backing up into the esophagus and assists the flow of food and digestive juices from the stomach to the intestines.

Limit your intake of acid-stimulating foods and beverages You should eat foods that rarely cause you heartburn and avoid those foods that do. The foods and beverages listed below are known heartburn triggers for the majority of sufferers:

  • Coffee, tea (decaffeinated and regular)
  • Caffeinated beverages
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Spices
  • Pepper
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes and tomato-based products
  • Citrus fruits (oranges and grapefruits)
  • Fried foods
  • Fatty foods
  • Chocolate
  • Peppermint

Eating Out

When you eat out, you don't have as much control of your food and its preparation as you do at home.

You can still enjoy eating out heartburn-free if you know ahead of time what to look for and what to ask for.

When eating in a restaurant, don't be afraid to ask questions about how the food is prepared and what ingredients are used. You can ask for a substitution, and if you want, state that it's due to a health condition.

Most restaurants are willing to accommodate you.

The following list spells out what you should and shouldn't eat when dining out.

Avoid having:

  • Fried foods, such as burgers, fried chicken and fried fish
  • Foods prepared in butter or oil
  • High-fat side dishes, such as French fries
  • High-fat sauces, salad dressings, gravies and mayo
  • Creamy soups
  • Chili
  • Dishes with lots of citrus fruit
  • Peppers
  • Onions
  • Foods with a lot of extra cheese
  • Tomato-based foods, including ketchup
  • Citrus drinks such as orange juice and lemonade
  • Caffeinated beverages
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Chocolate

Consider having:

  • White meat
  • Lean cuts of meat
  • Sandwiches with turkey, chicken or roast beef on whole grain bread
  • Grilled foods
  • Broth-based soups
  • Steamed vegetables
  • Baked potatoes topped with low-fat salad dressing
  • Low-fat or no-fat salad dressings
  • Lighter desserts, such as angel food cake

Reducing Alcohol Consumption

For some GERD patients, an occasional alcoholic drink will not cause any adverse side effects. For others, however, even a small drink will result in a bout with heartburn.

Alcohol can increase the production of stomach acid, and it can also relax the LES.

For those who feel the urge to drink an alcoholic beverage, the following are tips for reducing the risk of heartburn:

  • Dilute alcoholic beverages with water or club soda.
  • Drink moderate amounts of alcoholic beverages -- the suggested amounts are one to two mixed drinks, 12 to 16 ounces of wine or two to three beers.
  • When having wine, drink white wine instead of red.
  • Choose non-alcoholic beer or wine.
  • Keep track of which alcoholic drinks aggravate your heartburn, and avoid them as much as possible.

Stop Smoking

In numerous studies, smoking has been shown to have adverse effects on GERD symptoms. In these studies, the smokers were monitored using esophageal manometry or with a 24-hour ambulatory pH test. The results showed that when the test subjects smoked and for a few minutes afterwards, the LES relaxed, allowing stomach contents to reflux back into the esophagus. Other studies show that individuals who smoke and have erosive esophagitis will have longer healing times.

When You Sleep

Research has shown sleeping with your head elevated can help keep stomach contents where they belong -- in the stomach and not in the esophagus. Also, people who go to bed too soon after eating a big meal are much more likely to suffer from acid reflux than those who wait two to three hours after a meal to go to bed.

The following tips will help you to have a heartburn-free nighttime:

  • Sleep with your head and shoulders elevated.
  • Sleep on your left side. Studies have shown that this position aids digestion and helps with the removal of stomach acid.
  • Wait at least two to three hours after eating to go to bed.
  • Make sure your bed clothes are loose-fitting.
  • Take an antacid when heartburn hits. Antacids will work very quickly on heartburn you may be experiencing before you go to bed. If you are taking an antacid more than once or twice a week, you should see your doctor about another treatment plan.
  • Wait at least two hours after a meal before exercising. Exercising on a too full stomach can trigger heartburn.
  • Check your medications. Some medications can worsen heartburn symptoms, so talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.


"Heartburn, Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)." NIH Publication No. 07–0882 May 2007. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NIDDK). 22 Jul 2007 <http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/gerd/>.

"The Word on GERD." American College of Gastroenterology. 22 Jul 2007 <http://www.acg.gi.org/patients/gerd/word.asp>.

Jill Sklar, Annabel Cohen. Eating for Acid Reflux: A Handbook and Cookbook for Those with Heartburn. New York, NY: Marlowe & Company, 2003.

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