More than one-third of the population suffers from some sort of recurring, painful digestive symptom, disorder or disease. For example, these include hemorrhoids, IBS, Crohn’s, gluten intolerance or celiac disease, heartburn or acid reflux. (1) Many other chronic conditions, including some that are caused mainly by a weakened immune system, are also linked to poor digestive health.
What does acid reflux, or related issues like heartburn and GERD, feel like? Symptoms that are shared by all three include: chest pains, burning sensations that can pick up at night and disturb your sleep, and difficulty eating many foods.
If you experience any of these acid reflux symptoms and want to find some relief, you must improve your diet and make necessary lifestyle changes. These changes include rethinking how you sleep and even manage stress. Also, I recommend considering remedies like adding acid reflux–fighting supplements to your diet, exercising, cutting out caffeine and too much alcohol, and potentially losing weight.
What Is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux, also called heartburn, is caused by acidic digestive juices creeping up from the stomach and entering back into the esophagus. It is related to gastroesophageal reflux disease (or GERD), the more severe form of these problems. Acid reflux causes a burning sensation, almost like your chest or throat “is one fire.”
Most people assume that eating foods high in acid and producing too much stomach acid causes heartburn/GERD symptoms. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Low stomach acid and poor digestion are more likely the real culprits. These problems won’t be cured overnight with dietary changes or other modifications, but you can find significant relief fairly soon if you stick with a healthier way of living.
About 4–10 percent of all adults experience symptoms typical of acid reflux or GERD daily, and weekly for up to 30 percent of those living in Western countries! (2) Because we’re all different, it’s essential to find the combination of acid reflux protocols described below that are best for you. In fact, ongoing research is focusing not just on pharmaceutical drugs for relief of acid reflux, but also on lifestyle modifications. For example, some modifications you may want to try include eating an acid reflux diet, acupuncture, yoga, exercise, weight loss and alternative therapies.
Acid Reflux Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors
For most people with acid reflux or heartburn, symptoms include:
- Chest pains and burning sensations
- Bitter taste in your mouth
- Trouble sleeping, including waking up feeling like you’re choking or coughing in the middle of the night
- Dry mouth
- Gum irritation, including tenderness and bleeding
- Bad breath
- Gas, burping and stomach bloating after meals
- Sometimes nausea and loss of appetite
- And a slew of other symptoms depending on how severely the esophagus becomes inflamed or damaged
GERD symptoms are similar to acid reflux symptoms, although sometimes more severe. The underlying reason that acid reflux/heartburn develops is due to dysfunction of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Usually the LES “keeps a lid on things” by preventing acid from flowing back up through the esophagus. (3) While the stomach has a built-in lining that protects it from feeling “burned” due to the presence of acid, the esophagus does not. Because it’s not shielded like the stomach is, the esophagus can start to erode and develop complications over time when acid reflux isn’t treated. As a result, tissue scarring and even formation of esophageal cancer in severe cases may occur.
- Eating foods too fast, without chewing properly or taking time to digest. In fact, in our fast-paced society, this is believed to be one of the most common causes of occasional acid reflux/heartburn.
- Overeating, which taxes the digestive system and adds pressure to the stomach
- Eating only 1-2 big meals per day, rather than spacing meals out
- Obesity and being overweight
- Older age, which affects acid production
- History of hiatal hernias
- Consuming certain foods that tend to aggravate the digestive system, including processed foods, sugary snacks, refined oils, fried foods and processed meats.
- Taking certain prescription medications, including repeat antibiotics or those used to treat high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, heart problems and osteoporosis.
- High amounts of chronic stress
- Deficiencies in certain nutrients
- Smoking, alcohol and high caffeine use
Problems with Conventional Treatments For Acid Reflux
Acid reflux, heartburn and GERD are usually treated with perscriptions or over-the-counter drugs to lower pain. Sometimes these are used when symptoms are already beginning to flare up, while in other cases they are taken daily to prevent symptoms.
The three main types of medicines to treat acid reflux symptoms or those caused by GERD are: antacids, H2RAs (histamine type 2 receptor antagonists), and PPIs (proton pump inhibitors). In the past, you may have taken some of these products and pills to resolve your symptoms.
In fact, acid reflux/GERD drugs have been found to contribute to symptoms like: poor digestion, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), depression, anemia and fatigue. Long-term use of gastric acid suppression, like proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) or antacid medications, are even associated with an increased risk of C. difficile infections. As a result, serious problems that can develop include diarrhea, inflamed intestines and bleeding ulcers. (6) Patients who are at the greatest risk for side effects from PPIs include the elderly, those with certain chronic medical conditions, and those taking broad spectrum antibiotics. In fact, the FDA has warned patients taking these drugs that they should immediately contact their healthcare professional and seek care if they develop diarrhea that does not improve.
The Acid Reflux Diet
Virtually every research study done on GERD and acid reflux points to a poor, processed diet as a contributing factor. On top of that, it’s easy to overeat processed foods and in the process to neglect mindful eating practices. While everyone’s gut is different and we all react to various foods in our own unique way, there are common food sensitivities that seem to trigger acid reflux in many people. Be sure to focus on cutting out these “repeat offenders” from your diet first. (7)
For good digestive health and relief from pain, it’s important to select organic foods free from GMOs as often as possible. Increasing fiber intake, supporting healthy bacteria with probiotic rich foods and supplements, reducing grains, and eating high-quality protein will also help protect the digestive tract. Additionally, these changes to your diet reduce risk factors like inflammation, obesity and complications tied to serious chronic diseases.
Here are the foods that can help improve acid reflux and treat GERD:
- Kefir and yogurt help balance healthy bacteria in the stomach, aiding in digestion and soothing the digestive tract. Select products that have live and active cultures that have been fermented for 24 hours.
- Bone broth made from grass-fed beef, slow cooked to extract essential compounds including collagen, glutamine, proline and glycine.
- Fermented vegetables including kimchi and sauerkraut.
- Kombucha packed with healthy bacteria and probiotics.
- Apple cider vinegar helps to balance stomach acid and lessen the symptoms of acid reflux. Mix one tablespoon of raw apple cider vinegar with a cup of water and drink five minutes prior to eating.
- Coconut water is high in potassium and electrolytes that help to keep the body hydrated. Sip coconut water throughout the day and drink a glass before bed to help keep acid reflux at bay. Coconut water can also be made into kefir, which adds additional healthy probiotics into the stomach that individuals with acid reflux desperately need.
- Coconut oil is a great source of healthy fat that’s also anti-inflammatory. Try to consume one tablespoon of coconut oil daily. For example, spread it on sprouted grain bread or incorporate into other foods. The lauric acid and other natural compounds help to fight inflammation, to boost immunity and to kill candida.
- Green leafy vegetables
- Pumpkin and other squash
- Wild-caught tuna and salmon
- Healthy fats including coconut oil and ghee
- Raw cow’s milk cheese
Many of these foods are included in The GAPS diet, a dietary plan I recommend for people with digestive problems that focuses on whole foods. The GAPS diet can be helpful for treating conditions like IBS, leaky gut, ADHD and many other conditions too besides acid reflux. In fact, GAPS is a diet rich in fresh organic vegetables, free-range chicken and grass-fed beef, and bone broth. It also incorporates healthy herbs or plants such as aloe vera, parsley, ginger and fennel which can soothe the digestive tract. (8)
Foods to Avoid on the GERD/Acid Reflux Diet
As mentioned briefly above, certain foods are known to cause acid reflux symptoms more than others. These foods, which are said to “fan the flames” of acid reflux, include meaty foods, fast food, processed cheeses, chocolate, alcohol and caffeine.
Here are foods to avoid that commonly make acid reflux symptoms worse:
- Alcohol. While some people feel okay having small amounts of alcohol in moderation, others find beer, liquor and wine to be some of the worse culprits. Consume small amounts at a time along with plenty of water to test how you react. Also, it helps to avoid alcohol close to bedtime, or when eating other foods that can trigger symptoms.
- Caffeine. Drinks like coffee, tea and energy drinks can irritate an inflamed esophagus and alter how the sphincter works.
- Carbonated beverages. This includes soft drinks, alcohol, energy drinks, even seltzer or sparkling water, etc.
- Sugar and artificial sweeteners. Both are the cause of inflammation in many cases and can lead to over-eating, fast eating and weight gain.
- Fried foods. Fatty foods tend to sit in the stomach for a long time and are hard to digest properly. As a result, this can trigger surplus acid production.
- Processed foods made with lots of salt, corn and potato. These includes chips, crackers, cereals, etc. A very high percentage of packaged products are made with some type of processed corn ingredient, so read ingredient labels and try to consume more organic “whole foods” instead. Too much sodium is another big problem that is linked to consumption of packaged products. One Swedish study that followed more than 1,000 people found that those who consumed a high-sodium diet have significantly higher rates of acid reflux. (9)
- Chocolate. Many people find that cutting out cocoa/chocolate from their diet helps improve symptoms. Considering many chocolate products contain processed, fats, caffeine and sugar (a “triple whammy”), it’s one of the worst offenders.
- Dairy products. Not every person has a negative reaction to dairy foods, like yogurt or cheese, but some do. Milk products contain calcium, sugar and usually fat which can all trigger the release of more acid from the stomach.
- Vegetable oils, including canola oil. Processed oils, like fried and fatty foods, are found in lots of packaged snacks that can trigger inflammation.
- Spicy foods. Spices like cayenne, chili, cinnamon or pepper are other types of ingredients that can be generally very healthy. However, spicy foods are known to worsen the burning sensation associated with acid reflux in some patients. Since spices affect everyone differently, test your own symptoms to see how you feel when consuming them. Instead, blander foods made with less spice might be a better option if your symptoms get worse.
- Tomatoes, tomato products & onions. Although they are healthy in general, these vegetables can trigger symptoms in certain people, especially when eaten in large amounts (such as lots of tomato sauce).
- Citrus fruits and juices. Citrus fruits are somewhat high in acid and make symptoms worse.
- Creamy/oily prepared salad dressings.
- Mint and peppermint. Mint products seem to make symptoms worse because they lower pressure in the esophageal sphincter, allowing acid to rise.
- Processed grains.
Other Natural Remedies, Including Supplements and Essential Oils
1. Supplements for Acid Reflux Symptoms:
In addition to eating a healthy diet of foods that help to soothe the symptoms of acid reflux and GERD, it’s important to add natural supplements to your diet.
- Digestive Enzymes. Take one or two capsules of a high-quality digestive enzyme at the start of each meal. They help foods fully digest and nutrients absorb properly.
- Probiotics. Take 25–50 billion units of high-quality probiotics daily. Adding healthy bacteria helps to balance the digestive tracts and crowd out bad bacteria that can lead to indigestion, leaky gut and poor absorption of nutrients.
- HCL with Pepsin. Take one 650 milligram pill prior to each meal. Add additional pills as necessary to keep uncomfortable symptoms at bay.
- Chamomile tea. Sip one cup of chamomile tea prior to bed sweetened with raw honey. Chamomile tea helps to reduce inflammation in the digestive tract, supporting healthy functioning.
- Ginger tea. Boil a one-inch piece of fresh ginger in 10 ounces of water for 10 minutes. Sweeten with honey and sip after meals or prior to bed. Ginger is used for digestive support around the globe. If you don’t have fresh ginger on hand, a high-quality ginger supplement in capsule form taken at the onset of symptoms can help soothe symptoms.
- Papaya leaf tea. Papain, an enzyme in papaya, aids in digestion by breaking down proteins. If fresh organic, non-GMO papaya is not available, organic papaya leaf tea is a good alternative. Eat one cup of fresh papaya at the onset of acid reflux symptoms or sip a cup of tea prior to bed.
- Magnesium complex supplement. Take 400 milligrams of a high-quality magnesium supplement twice per day. As mentioned above, being deficient in magnesium can cause improper sphincter functioning, resulting in GERD symptoms. Magnesium is shown to be effective at treating heartburn. (10)
- L-Glutamine. Take five grams of glutamine powder twice per day with meals. Numerous research studies show that it helps to heal leaky gut and benefits both ulcerative colitis and IBS. (11)
- Melatonin. Take six milligrams each evening. Research indicates that melatonin levels in individuals with acid reflux are significantly lower than individuals without acid reflux. Approximately 50 percent of individuals that take melatonin for 12 weeks had symptoms improve or go away. (12)
2. Essential Oils
Lemon and lemon essential oil can be helpful for controlling acid reflux in some patients, although not everyone responds to this in the same way (some have a hard time with citrus products, at least initially). You can try consuming lemon juice along with a slice of fresh ginger in your water each day. You can also add a drop or two of lemon essential oil to water, or place one drop of therapeutic grade (pure oil) on your tongue, swishing and swallowing.
3. Change The Way You Eat & Chew
- Don’t overeat–eat smaller meals to allow foods to properly digest. Large meals and overeating puts extra pressure on the sphincter, which in turn can result in regurgitation of acid and undigested foods.
- Don’t consume food three hours prior to bed—allow your stomach to digest the foods from the meal and sip an herbal tea with honey to soothe digestive upset.
- Chew foods thoroughly—most people today don’t chew their food enough; remember, digestion starts in the mouth! Because the more you break down foods prior to swallowing, the easier time your stomach will have digesting them.
- Wear comfortable clothing after eating—avoid tight-fitting clothing and belts, especially during mealtime. These can make symptoms, pressure and pain worse.
4. Other Lifestyle Changes & Tips
Curing acid reflux and GERD requires a multi-prong approach. Lifestyle changes like eating a healthy diet, avoiding food triggers and taking the right supplements can all really help. In addition, a high percentage of sufferers will find relief from making other changes to how and when they eat, along with to how they rest and move their body.
Here are tips that can reduce the onset of acid reflux symptoms by decreasing common triggers:
- Sleep on your side & raise your head. Try to lift the head of your bed 4–6 inches, since laying totally flat down in bed might make symptoms worse. Use blocks to raise the bed, not just pillows. This is better than just propping up your head with pillows, which can cause neck problems. In fact, raising your head at night can help keep acid in the stomach and relieve symptoms of acid reflux and GERD. As a result, there is an ongoing research study testing sleep positions and their effect on acid reflux symptoms at night. (13)
- Don’t bend over. Bending over from the waist to relieve pain will likely not help. In fact, bending over may even make symptoms worse by squeezing the stomach.
- Manage stress. Stress makes symptoms of acid reflux worse by increasing acid production in the stomach. It’s important to start incorporating relaxation techniques into your daily routine. For example, try yoga, meditation, art therapy or whatever helps you effectively manage stress.
- Acupressure. Certain reflex points at the base of the rib cage are associated with digestion and can help relieve the symptoms.
- Don’t rely on drugs. As mentioned above, prescription medications only temporarily treat the symptoms. For long-term relief, you must adjust your diet and lifestyle. If you are going to take drugs for pain, take them close to bedtime for the most relief.
- Exercise. Exercise moderately. In fact, studies show that rigorous exercise and running can agitate the digestive tract and cause acid reflux. Exercise earlier in the day.
- Smoking. If you smoke, stop as soon as possible! Smoking can relax your sphincter and cause acid to rise. Second hand smoke can also make symptoms worse.
Precautions When Treating Acid Reflux
Just because acid reflux is common, doesn’t mean it’s “normal.” If your acid reflux symptoms interfere with your lifestyle or daily activity, affect your appetite or nutrient intake and last for more than 2 weeks, then consider visiting a doctor. Other reasons to get a professional opinion on treatment options include experiencing: hoarseness, worsening of asthma after meals, pain that is persistent when lying down, pain following exercise, difficulty breathing that occurs mainly at night, diarrhea, and trouble swallowing for more than one to two days.
Key Points on Acid Reflux Diet & Other Remedies
- Acid reflux is caused by stomach acid creeping up into the esophagus. Symptoms of acid reflux usually include: chest pains, heartburn, a bad taste in the mouth, bloating, gassiness, and difficulty digesting and swallowing properly.
- Common causes of acid reflux and GERD include: eating a poor diet, over-eating and eating quickly, pregnancy, history of hiatal hernias, obesity, older age, and an imbalance of stomach acid.
5 Natural Remedies for Acid Reflux/GERD
- Improving your diet
- Avoiding certain problem foods
- Reaching a healthier weight
- Taking helpful supplements
- Eating smaller, more balanced meals