Photo by Aka Photo-Illustration TIME

Eating these specific items may reduce that painful burn.

Jenny McCoy
November 19, 2018

Experiencing acid reflux is not pleasant. In some cases, it’s downright painful. Just ask the millions of Americans who have symptoms on a monthly—and sometimes even daily—basis. While many sufferers rely on over-the-counter and prescription medication to treat the condition, lifestyle changes may be just as effective.

Here, three medical experts explain the condition, what causes it, and why small tweaks to your routine, including eating certain foods, can play a big role in reducing that dreaded burn.

What Exactly Is Acid Reflux?

Acid reflux is the backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus, aka the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach, says Peyton Berookim, MD, FACG, a Los Angeles-based double board-certified gastroenterologist and director of the Gastroenterology Institute of Southern California. Every time you swallow, he explains, a circular band of muscle around the bottom of your esophagus, known as the lower esophageal sphincter, relaxes to allow food and liquid to flow forward into your stomach. From there, the sphincter typically closes, though if it sphincter relaxes abnormally or weakens for any reason, the stomach acid can flow back into the esophagus.

The acid in your stomach is particularly strong, explains Sunit Srivastava, MD, at Florida-based Legacy Health Medical Group, LLC, so when it leaks out into other areas of your body, it can cause a range of reactions, from irritation and inflammation to pre-cancerous and sometimes even cancerous conditions. “Acid reflux can range from being benign and annoying to terminal, if it’s left untreated and severe enough,” says Srivastava, who specializes in internal medicine and geriatrics.

For many people, the condition will manifest as a sour taste in the mouth or a burning sensation in the chest, known best as heartburn, says Berookim. Other signs and symptoms may include regurgitation of food or sour liquid, coughing, wheezing, difficulty swallowing, raspy voice, and even chest pain, he adds.

What Causes It?

There are several things that can cause acid reflux. The first: what Srivastava describes as “a chemical phenomenon” that relaxes the valve at the top of the stomach, causing it to open and thus allowing the acid to travel upwards. The phenomenon can be triggered by nicotine, alcohol and “very large meals,” he says.

Two other causes are the result of “mechanical phenomena,” says Srivastava. The first involves part of the stomach moving out into the chest cavity. “It sounds a lot worse than it is,” he says. “A lot of people have it.” The second is due to excess body weight, particularly in the midsection. A [large] gut pushing down increases the pressure in the stomach and pushes the acid up,” says Srivastava.

Who Is at Risk for Acid Reflux?

People with certain conditions are more at-risk for developing acid reflux. These include obesity, hiatal hernia, pregnancy, connective tissue disorders, and delayed stomach emptying, says Berookim. On top of that, certain lifestyle factors can worsen acid reflux, including smoking, eating heavy meals (especially late at night), fatty or fried foods, tomatoes and citrus fruits, chocolate, peppermint, and drinking alcohol or coffee, he adds. These high-acid foods add acid to the stomach and increase the likelihood of irritation, says Maya Feller, New York-based registered dietitian.

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How Can Certain Foods Help?

Just as certain foods may trigger acid reflux, others can assuage the condition.“What works for one may not work for all,” caveats Feller, “but generally we encourage folks to consume low-acid foods.” Foods that are higher in pH are lower in acid. Generally the pH is not listed on label, so it can be difficult to determine this. Here, recommended options from Feller and Berookim.

Oatmeal

This fiber-filled breakfast food may coat the sensitive lining of the esophagus, says Berookim, and is not an irritant for most people, says Feller. Try these Make-Ahead Oatmeal Jars for healthy, hot, acid reflux-free breakfasts all week long.

Aloe Vera

This plant doesn’t just soothe sunburns—it may also soothe your GI system. Studies suggest that drinking 100% aloe vera juice without any additives or anthraquinones (an organic compound in aloe that can be a laxative) may reduce acid reflux symptoms. Blend aloe vera juice with cucumber, spinach, and celery for a sippable solution, suggest Feller.

Fennel

This spicy-sweet vegetable may help with digestion, says Feller. Fennel teas “have a wonderful flavor and generally can be consumed daily,” she adds, and fennel bulb can be cooked with lentils and other root vegetables or sliced and eaten raw with greens. Check out these fennel-centric recipes for inspiration.

Melon

Many fruits, like oranges, cranberries, kiwis and pomegranates, are acidic. But melon, including cantaloupe and honeydew, are not, which means they’re likely good bets for those with acid reflux. Have a few slices at breakfast, or as an afternoon snack.

Bananas

Another stomach settling fruit, bananas—especially ripe bananas—have a high pH. You can always eat them plain, add them to your oatmeal for a doubly good option, or try baking with them.

Green vegetables

When it comes to vegetables, leafy greens like kale and spinach are healthy, low-in-acid options. Learn how to cook kale here, and scope these 39 spinach recipes.

The bottom line

If you think you have acid reflux, head to your doc for an official evaluation, as the symptoms you’re experiencing may be a result of other conditions, like ulcers, or even heart disease, says Srivastava. If you do indeed have acid reflux, lifestyle modification is your best bet for combatting it, says Srivastava. That’s because prescription drugs used to treat acid reflux come with a range of side effects, including increased risk of pneumonia, hip and spine fractures, and C. diff (a life-threatening condition); vitamin malabsorption; and progression of osteoporosis. Certain medications may also have links with dementia, he says.

Helpful lifestyle changes include losing excess weight, eating smaller meals, and swapping the foods that typically cause heartburn for the safer bets mentioned above. On top of that, you should stop eating at least three hours before bed, Berookim adds. Exercise is another great way to alleviate the condition, says Srivastava. In addition to helping overweight patients lose weight, sweating on the reg helps your body release endorphins that can alleviate pressure on your esophagus, he explains.

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