The Do’s And Don’ts Of Frequent Heartburn And GERD

According to the American College of Gastroenterology, 60 million Americans have infrequent heartburn, and 15 million experience symptoms every day. Acid reflux can destroy a person’s day or night. “It can hurt as much as a heart attack,” certified nurse Paige Hastings told Everyday Health.

But there is hope. By making simple adjustments to your eating schedule or how you lie in bed, you can reduce symptoms of heartburn. People with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) need these tips to feel better. Explore the do’s and don’ts of heartburn to relieve the pain.

DON’T Lie Down If You Feel Bad

Senior man with chest pain is comforted by his concerned wife.
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

If you’re experiencing heartburn, lying down will only make it worse. The stomach acid that sneaks into the esophagus will stay there longer. “A good part of the explanation is gravity,” says Dr. Lawrence J. Cheskin, co-author of Healing Heartburn. When you sit up, gravity pushes acid back into your stomach.

Research by Nexium Control says that 37% of heartburn sufferers struggle to sleep because they can’t lay down. If you have late-night acid reflux, sleep with your head elevated by four to six inches. Wedge pillows and blocks can make this more comfortable.

DO Eat Small, Frequent Meals

Students eat lunch from cafeteria trays.
NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images
NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images

Eating large meals can worsen acid reflux. According to Dr. V. John Bagnato of Georgia Reflux Surgery, large meals expand the stomach and prevent the lower esophageal sphincter from closing fully. The result is more acid entering the esophagus. To prevent this, eat smaller meals frequently throughout the day.

Gastroenterologist Dr. Scott Gabbard says that “limiting meals to 500 calories and 15 grams of fat does seem to limit the amount that the sphincter opens.” In short, eat smaller meals with low fat and stock up on snacks.

DON’T Speed Eat

A woman clutches her neck due to heartburn.

If you suffer from acid reflux, eat more slowly! In 2003, researchers announced at Digestive Disease Week that fast eating creates more heartburn. Study participants who ate a meal within 15 minutes experienced worse symptoms than those who ate over 30 minutes.

It’s possible that fast eating itself isn’t the cause; research in the Turkish Journal of Gastroenterology found no correlation between quick meals and heartburn. People who speed eat are more likely to overeat, which creates more pressure in the stomach and prompts acid reflux.

DO Sleep On Your Left Side

A woman sleeps on her left side.

While trying to sleep with heartburn, lie on your left side. In 2006, a study in JAMA noted that patients who slept on their right side experienced worse acid reflux. Further research in The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology stated that “the total amount of reflux time was significantly greater” when heartburn patients lay on their right side.

Scientists still aren’t clear on the reason why. David A. Johnson, an internal medicine division chief at the Eastern Virginia School of Medicine, suggests that left-side sleeping increases the space between the stomach and the esophageal sphincter. Remember, right is wrong.

DON’T Wear Tight-Fitting Clothes

A mean wearing jeans with a belt checks his watch.

While having acid reflux, wear loose-fitting clothes. Tight clothes place pressure on the stomach, which encourages acid to move upward, says television doctor Sarah Jarvis. Leggings, skinny jeans, shapewear, and tight belts can put you at risk, even if you don’t often experience heartburn.

In 2014, a study in the journal Gut said that wearing tight belts can change the cells around the esophagus and stomach. The result is more frequent heartburn, even for those who don’t experience it often. When you’re feeling bad, wear sweatpants instead.

DO Try Breathing Exercises

A man practices deep breathing during an interview.
Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Breathing exercises can improve heartburn symptoms. In 2011, a small clinical trial in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that “belly breathing” assuaged acid reflux in participants. The techniques can strengthen the muscles around the diaphragm, which helps the lower esophageal sphincter close.

Aline Charabaty, the director of the Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease at Georgetown University, believes that deep breathing also relieves pressure on the stomach. Short, shallow breaths create more gas in the stomach, so focus on breathing deeply into your stomach.

DO Eat Dinner Earlier

A woman eats tacos at night.

Whenever you can, eat dinner more than three hours before bed. According to 2005 research in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, people who eat within three hours before bed have worse heartburn symptoms. Food needs to digest so that the stomach can stop producing acid.

“Many of us get home late, we eat a big meal…and go to bed an hour later,” cardiologist Tara Narula told CBS News. “These are all the things you want to try and avoid.” If you need a late-night snack, eat something small and bland.

DON’T Bend Over Frequently

Rory McIlroy bends over to pick up a golf ball.
Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR
Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR

Whether you’re working out or moving boxes, take care not to bend over frequently. Like lying down, bending over makes gravity work against you. Gastroenterologist Dr. Felice Schnoll-Sussman says that bending over can create a burning sensation in the chest or throat if you suffer from heartburn.

UVA Health recommends not bending over or straining soon after a meal. You may want to adjust your workout and stretches to avoid bending over or hanging upside-down. While lifting boxes, bend your knees so that you don’t lean forward too often.

DO Become A Heartburn Detective

A woman clutches her stomach in discomfort.

As of 2020, there is no official GERD diet. Researchers suspect that certain foods make symptoms worse, but it varies for every person. For instance, some experts advise against coffee, but research in Diseases of the Esophagus found no correlation between coffee and heartburn. You have to investigate which foods bother you and which don’t.

Registered dietitian Eileen Myers recommends keeping a heartburn journal. If you feel especially bad one night, write down what you ate recently. Learn whether you can tolerate spicy meals or citrus fruits through observation.

DO Take Medication (Correctly) If You Need It

Heartburn medication has its own section at Walgreens.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Never discount the power of medication, even over-the-counter antiacids. Walter Chan, the director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Center at Harvard, says that most of his patients aren’t taking their heartburn medications correctly. The result is that patients still experience acid reflux even while on meds.

If heartburn is interrupting your life, visit a doctor, says Harvard Health Publishing. Dr. Chan also recommends taking heartburn medication 15 to 30 minutes before a meal. “Once you adjust the timing of the medication, you get a much better effect from it,” he says.

DON’T Consume Mints Or Peppermint

Glasses are filled with peppermint tea.

Although peppermint can relieve nausea, it doesn’t help acid reflux. During a 2014 study, many patients with GERD experience worse symptoms after drinking peppermint tea. Mint relaxes the sphincter that separates the stomach from the esophagus, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

That said, some people don’t receive more symptoms from mint. In 1999, research in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics found that spearmint flavoring did not impact acid reflux. Listen to your body; if those after-dinner mints make your heartburn worse, skip them.

DO Adjust Your Diet

A person holds out a restaurant menu.
David Silverman/Getty Images
David Silverman/Getty Images

“Diet plays a major role in controlling acid reflux symptoms and is the first line of therapy used for people with GERD,” says gastroenterologist Ekta Gupta. Your heartburn symptoms directly rely on when and what you eat. Although there is no foolproof diet for GERD patients, tweaking your meals can assuage your symptoms.

John Hopkins Medicine advises against eating high-fat dairy, chocolate, acidic fruits, onions, garlic, carbonated drinks, and caffeinated beverages. However, some people are more sensitive to specific foods, and you can eat whatever doesn’t bother you.

DO Add More Fiber To Your Diet

A spoon dips into traditional white beach stew.
VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Increase your fiber, decrease your heartburn. In 2004, scientists analyzed over 65,000 heartburn sufferers in the journal Gut. Participants who ate high-fiber bread were twice as likely to feel better and receive fewer acid reflux symptoms. The American Journal of Gastroenterology says that ten more grams of fiber could make a difference.

Why does fiber work? According to the World Journal of Gastroenterology, fiber relieves gas and pressure in the stomach. With less pressure, the esophageal sphincter can close correctly, which results in less acid reflux.

DO Watch What You Eat Before Exercising

Two women take a break from exercising.
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

While regular exercise can help GERD, it can also trigger acid reflux. Researchers believe that exercise-induced heartburn depends on what you eat before working out. If you experience exercise heartburn, pharmacy manager Tara O’Brien recommends keeping track of what you ate and how soon before your workout.

As a general rule, try to eat two to three hours before exercising. If you eat sooner, have a light snack. You may also want to rethink your workout; certain exercises and stretches can increase the amount of acid that enters your esophagus.

DON’T Overdo It On Fried Foods

Two women eat fries and burgers at Wendy's.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Fried foods are perhaps the worst meals for heartburn. Registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo explains that greasy, high-fat foods weaken the esophageal sphincter. When the sphincter can’t close properly, more stomach acid creeps into the esophagus.

Many fried foods are high in fat, spices, and grease, which is why John Hopkins Medicine recommends staying away from them. Clinical GI scientist Dr. Anthony Hobson says that fried foods take longer to digest, which can also prolong acid reflux symptoms. Whenever you can, opt for non-fried, lean meats.

DO Lose Weight If You Can

A person weighs himself on a scale.
Joan Slaking/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

According to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, obesity is the leading cause of heartburn. If you aren’t obese, losing weight can still relieve symptoms. A study in The New England Journal of Medicine revealed that gaining just a few pounds can increase your risk of acid reflux.

“Any excess body fat gives you excess risk for having heartburn,” says gastroenterologist Dr. Brian C. Jacobson. Even people who aren’t officially overweight, but close to it, can triple their symptoms, he says. You may be surprised by what shedding a few pounds can do.

DO Understand The Causes Of GERD

A doctor instructs a patient on GERD medication.
JUDY GRIESEDIECK/Star Tribune via Getty Images
JUDY GRIESEDIECK/Star Tribune via Getty Images

If you have GERD or experience frequent heartburn, learn what causes it. According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, around 70% of GERD patients don’t suffer from esophageal damage. Most cases of heartburn come from a weak esophageal sphincter or too much acid in the stomach, says Europe PM.

Understanding the causes will prevent you from chasing the wrong solutions. For instance, consuming apple cider vinegar may not work if the stomach over-produces acid. Research science-backed websites for heartburn relief.

DON’T Light Up

A public ash tray is seen in public.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

While lighting up isn’t a risk factor for GERD, it will worsen the disease. According to the European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, substance abuse results in more painful and frequent heartburn. People who light up may wake up with acid in their throat the next day.

Why does this happen? The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases says that smoke affects the esophagus. It relaxes the esophageal sphincter and irritates digestive mucus. Plus, it may increase the amount of acid in the stomach, which is the last thing you need while suffering from acid reflux.

DON’T Keep Going To Happy Hour

Empty glasses sit on a table.
David Silverman/Getty Images
David Silverman/Getty Images

Does happy hour worsen acid reflux? Science says yes. In 2010, a review of 35 studies found that drinking can increase heartburn. Although research varies, some scientists believe that drinking can damage the mucus membranes of the stomach and esophagus.

The impact on heartburn depends on how many drinks you have. According to a study in JAMA, even a “moderate amount” can harm the esophagus if you drink frequently. Limit your happy hour, and try to stick to one or two drinks at a time.

DO Take Brief Walks After Heavy Meals

Friends walk outside together.

If you’ve overeaten and are suffering from heartburn, take a short walk. Light exercise helps the stomach empty and allows gravity to push the acid down, says section chief of gastroenterology and hepatology Hashem B. El-Sera. A ten or 15-minute walk should do the trick.

In 2013, a study by George Washington University found that walking and standing after meals improve symptoms of both diabetes and acid reflux. Light exercise delays digestion while pushing the food contents down, which means less heartburn.