It’s a feeling nearly everyone can relate to; you’ve just eaten a delicious meal at a posh restaurant and when you get home to bed, you find yourself clutching your chest and gulping down water to try and alleviate that horrible burning sensation.
No, you’re not having a heart attack – but heartburn (which is caused by stomach acid leaking into the oesophagus) is certainly an unpleasant thing to experience. And you’d be in the minority if you haven’t been through it at least once in your life. Unfortunately, for some Brits, heartburn is a daily reality, just one symptom of a chronic condition known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (or GORD, for short).
In 2011, a Norwegian study found that cases of GORD were on the rise, and suggested a link between this and rising body weights. At the time, the Daily Mail reported on this study, interpreting the results as an indication that obesity caused by a fatty diet is a direct cause of heartburn and acid reflux. As shown here, the NHS dismissed the Daily Mail’s take on the results, as the study did not show a link between diet and symptoms.
In fact, while it is true that obesity puts you at greater risk of GORD the foods that most commonly cause heartburn are not those you might expect. According to the experts at WebMD, some of our favourite healthy foods can be a high risk for triggering an attack of heartburn.
If you find yourself regularly battling with heartburn, it’s worth visiting a doctor, as you may be suffering from GORD and may require medication. If you aren’t diagnosed with GORD, or if it’s only causing moderate symptoms, you should be able to manage the condition at home by making some adjustments to your diet and lifestyle.
Foods to Avoid
There are a number of different foods and drinks that can trigger heartburn and acid reflux:
- Acidic foods such as citrus fruits or juices, and tomatoes
- Garlic and onion
- Spicy food containing lots of pepper and/or chilli
- Carbonated drinks
Though the Daily Mail’s condemnation of a fatty diet was a little slapdash, they weren’t totally wrong – as you’ll read here, foods that are high in fat (avocado, cheese, nuts and steak) can also cause heartburn. This is because high-fat foods cause the stomach to empty more slowly, meaning it is more likely to swell, putting pressure on the muscles that keep it closed and allowing for acid to leak out.
Having said that, it may not be necessary to completely cut out the foods and drinks listed above – particularly the healthier ones. However, eating them in moderation, and not in combination with one another, is advised.
As well as looking out for foods that can trigger your heartburn, you should avoid eating very large meals – instead, eat several small, light meals over the course of the day, and leave several hours between dining or drinking alcohol and going to bed.
Raising the head of your bed by around 20cm can also help to alleviate symptoms. This is because, for stomach acid to leak into the oesophagus, you have to be lying flat or bending over. Lying at an angle should help prevent this from happening. To raise your bed you should insert blocks underneath the bed – simply propping yourself up with pillows will not work.
Losing weight and quitting smoking are also advised.
Medical Treatment for Heartburn
If you are suffering from persistent heartburn, it may be appropriate to start using medication. There are various types available, ranging from over-the-counter antacids to prescription-only proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) and H2-receptor antagonists (H2RAs). Antacids neutralise the effects of stomach acid, while PPIs and H2RAs actively reduce the amount of acid produced by your stomach.
In rare cases, surgery may be the most suitable course of action. Most commonly, GORD is resolved through keyhole surgery in which the ring of muscle between the oesophagus and the stomach is tightened. This prevents the leakage of stomach acid.
To find out more about medical treatments for heartburn, consult our dedicated heartburn page.