Will a Glass of Milk Soothe Heartburn?

Milk is usually not a trigger of GERD, but may aggravate it

Young man relaxing, drinking milkshake
Daniel Ingold

Your grandmother might have told you that a glass of warm milk could help with anything from having trouble going to sleep to easing a sour stomach. It's a common bit of folk wisdom, but when it comes to heartburn, the bottom line is that milk won't generally help.

In fact, drinking that glass of milk could have the opposite effect for some people when it comes to nighttime heartburn.

This is because eating anything too close to bedtime, especially if you overeat, can cause excess production of stomach acid. This, in turn, can cause heartburn. 

Causes of Heartburn

Heartburn is a symptom of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Normally, your lower esophageal sphincter (LES)—a muscle between your stomach and esophagus—opens to allow food and liquids into the stomach but closes so they won't go the opposite direction. When you experience heartburn, the LES opens to allow acid from the stomach to come back up into the esophagus. This can cause a feeling of discomfort, or a more painful, burning sensation in your chest. In addition to heartburn, a person may experience regurgitation, trouble swallowing, and even a chronic cough. 

Several factors are thought to increase the likelihood of getting GERD. They include:

  • Being overweight, obese, or experiencing a rapid and large weight gain can increase the pressure on your LES, causing it to weaken.
  • Smoking and/or drinking alcohol or caffeine may relax the LES.
  • Being pregnant as pregnancy hormones may also relax the LES, plus the increased pressure of the uterus can weaken the LES.
  • Eating certain foods like spicy, fatty, fried foods, or citrus may trigger symptoms of heartburn. 
  • Stress is a potential trigger, although this hasn't been directly linked through scientific research.
  • Having a hiatal hernia. In this condition, part of the stomach pushes up through your diaphragm.

Why Milk Will Not Generally Help Heartburn

Drinking cool milk may ease the burn of acid reflux initially as it goes down your throat. But there may be a rebound action later when this same drink of milk triggers the production of stomach acid or slows down stomach emptying (which also plays a role in GERD).

This appears to be especially true of whole-fat milk. In GERD diets, skim milk is typically recommended—not as a cure for heartburn, but as part of a heartburn-friendly meal plan. Remember, dairy products like milk can be important sources of calcium for your bone health in preventing osteoporosis

The big picture here is that while milk does not generally trigger or ease heartburn and it may even irritate a person's already uncomfortable symptoms. This all being said, if you do notice symptoms of gastrointestinal distress like diarrhea or bloating after milk ingestion, you may be lactose intolerant, which is different from GERD.

Better Ways to Ease Your Nighttime Heartburn

There are ways to ease nighttime heartburn other than a glass of milk. Some tips that may help prevent heartburn include:

  • Eat a smaller meal at dinner.
  • Stay up (and upright) at least two to three hours after eating.
  • Elevate your head while you sleep. Consider a wedge pillow. This helps relieve pressure on your LES.
  • Sleep on your left side. Studies have shown this helps with digestion. Sleeping on the right side is more likely to cause heartburn.
  • Avoid tight pants. For PJs, too, make sure the waistbands are loose-fitting.

Sources:

Farahmand F, Najafi M, Ataee P, Modarresi V, Shahraki T, Rezae N. Cow's milk allergy among children with gastroesophageal reflux disease. Gut Liver. 2011 Sep;5(3):298-301.

Katz PO, Gerson LB, Vela MF. Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of gastroesophageal reflux diseaseAm J Gastroenterol 2013;108:308-28.