Acid reflux is a condition where stomach acid flows back up into your esophagus.
It can be brought on by eating too much, eating too quickly, or by eating a food that triggers acid production in the stomach.
No matter the cause, it can be uncomfortable, causing chest and throat burn, upper abdominal pain, an unpleasant taste in your mouth, and sometimes gassiness or belching.
It can also disrupt sleep and your daily life—as many as 20% of Americans suffer from acid reflux every day.
Luckily, there are a number of ways to manage and help prevent acid reflux.
In this article, I’ll tell you more about how acid reflux happens, and then outline some strategies that can help prevent and relieve the condition at home.
I’ll also tell you when it’s best to talk to a doctor or healthcare provider about acid reflux.
What is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid travels back up the esophagus (the tube that connects the mouth and stomach), which can irritate the esophagus and be generally uncomfortable.
There is a muscular valve between the stomach and the esophagus to prevent acid from flowing up instead of down.
This valve is called the esophageal sphincter. If it fails to open or close properly, acid can move up into the esophagus.
The esophagus, unlike the stomach, lacks a protective lining.
So this acid regurgitation can cause a burning sensation called heartburn.
Most people experience a bout of acid reflux every now and again, but if you experience acid reflux multiple times a week or often, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
GERD is common in the United States, affecting around 20% of individuals.
Symptoms of acid reflux
Most commonly, acid reflux causes an uncomfortable burning sensation in your chest (behind your breastbone) after you eat. Acid reflux can also result in the following symptoms:
- Pain in your chest when you bend over or lie down
- A bitter, hot, or acidic taste in the back of your throat
- A burning sensation in your throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- Coughing at night
- Disrupted sleep
- Dry heaving
While these symptoms can occur anytime after you eat, they often worsen when people bend over or lie down too quickly after eating—especially after a large meal or when they’ve consumed foods that trigger heartburn.
Causes of acid reflux
Acid reflux can be caused by certain foods, activity, certain medications, pregnancy, smoking, and being overweight.
All these may cause your lower esophageal sphincter to weaken or relax.
There are a number of dietary and lifestyle changes, best practices, and home remedies that can alleviate GERD or prevent common occurrences of heartburn.
Limit Foods High in Fat
Fatty foods like fried foods, pizza, fast food, and fatty meat may be one of the greatest culprits of acid reflux.
Since this type of food is harder to digest, it stays in your stomach longer and requires your body to produce more stomach acid to aid digestion.
Try to limit your consumption of these foods.
Sleep on Your Left Side
Laying down after a meal may increase the occurrence of acid reflux, as gravity is no longer helping to keep acid in your stomach.
A small study found that sleeping on the left side may reduce the occurrence of acid moving into the esophagus compared to other positions.
Eat an Earlier Dinner
Eating an earlier dinner will allow your body more time to digest the food before you lay down to sleep.
Don’t have a big meal before you lay down.
Try to finish your meal about three hours before bed.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Studies show that obese and overweight individuals are more likely to experience GERD.
A weight loss program and maintenance of a healthy weight is shown to help reduce, and in some cases even resolve, GERD symptoms.
Limit Alcohol Intake
A small study provides evidence that alcohol consumption increases your risk of GERD.
Alcohol may relax the sphincter muscle, allowing the valve to open so acid can move from the stomach to your esophagus.
Cutting back on alcoholic drinks may help resolve some acid reflux symptoms.
Elevate the Head of Your Bed
If you experience GERD or acid reflux symptoms at night, it can be helpful to elevate your head 6-8 inches off the bed using a number of pillows or an adjustable mattress.
This allows gravity to work with your body to keep acid in your stomach.
Eat Smaller Meals More Frequently
Larger meals are more difficult for your stomach to break down and may result in an increase of stomach acid.
More frequent, smaller meals may help.
Track and Avoid Foods That Cause Heartburn
Certain foods are more likely to cause heartburn and acid reflux.
To prevent bouts of acid reflux, it can be helpful to track the foods that trigger your own symptoms.
Spicy foods, foods that are high in acidity, and high-fat foods are most likely to cause heartburn.
If you eat something that triggers your symptoms, write it down in a notebook or in an app on your phone.
There are also foods that can help prevent acid reflux.
These include foods that are high in fiber like whole grains and green vegetables, alkaline foods like bananas and nuts, and watery foods like watermelon and herbal tea (though you may want to avoid mint tea, as mint has been shown to relax the lower esophageal sphincter, which can increase GERD symptoms).
If these foods work for you, keep track of them, too.
Limit Soda and Carbonated Beverage Intake
A study from 2005 found that individuals who consumed one or more carbonated drinks per day were more likely to experience nighttime heartburn and acid reflux.
To limit your chances of experiencing acid reflux at night or the long term effects of GERD, limit soda and carbonated drink intake. Instead of carbonated drinks, opt for natural remedies that may aid in digestion, such as ginger, lemon water, or milk.
For more serious cases of GERD, over-the-counter (OTC) medications can be helpful to manage acid reflux and heartburn symptoms.
Different medications have side effects, so talk to your doctor about which medications may be right for you.
OTC antacids are usually the first-line recommendation for acid reflux and heartburn because of their availability and low risk of side effects.
They work by neutralizing acids in your stomach and can provide fast, short-term relief.
You can find them in a variety of forms—including chewables, dissolving tablets, and liquids.
Some examples of antacids include calcium carbonate (Tums), simethicone (Mylanta; Maalox), and sodium bicarbonate (Alka-Seltzer).
Histamine-2 (H2) blockers
H2 blockers are available by prescription and OTC.
They can reduce the amount of acid your stomach produces to help alleviate heartburn.
H2 blockers don’t work as quickly to reduce heartburn as antacids, but the effect can last longer.
Examples include famotidine (Pepcid AC), nizatidine (Axid AR), and ranitidine (Zantac 75).
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
PPIs also work to reduce stomach acid.
They can be especially effective when antacids or H2 blockers haven’t worked.
Recently, some PPIs have become available OTC, including esomeprazole (Nexium) and omeprazole (Prilosec).
Other PPIs, like rabeprazole (AcipHex), are only available with a prescription.
Research shows that long-term use of PPIs can lead to kidney problems, including kidney failure.
Experts recommend using PPIs only when necessary and not as a regular medication.
When to See a Doctor
If you have heartburn more than twice per week and changes in diet are not helping, talk to your doctor.
They may refer you to a gastroenterologist, a stomach and digestive doctor.
Gastroenterologists can test the acidity of your stomach and assess the damage of your esophagus.
They can give you a prescription drug that may help manage your symptoms, or in more severe, rare cases, they may suggest surgical procedures.
These strengthen the opening at the bottom of the esophagus and prevent acid from rising up.
If you experience chest pain and shortness of breath, go to the hospital.
Do not mistake heartburn for a possible heart attack. You should also seek medical attention immediately if you experience blood in your vomit or black, tarry stool.
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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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A Novel Sleep Positioning Device Reduces Gastroesophageal Reflux: A Randomized Controlled Trial. (2015).
Effect of different recumbent positions on postprandial gastroesophageal reflux in normal subjects. (2000).
Obesity & GERD. (2015).
Weight Loss Can Lead to Resolution of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Symptoms: A Prospective Intervention Trial. (2013).
Is alcohol consumption associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease? (2010).
Predictors of Heartburn During Sleep in a Large Prospective Cohort Study. (2005).