5 Sneaky Eating Habits That Can Lead To Heartburn

Nothing can ruin a delicious meal like heartburn. One minute you’re enjoying pizza and beer with your friends and the next you’re reaching into the medicine cabinet for some Tums. Or maybe for you, heartburn strikes at night when you’re trying to sleep.

If heartburn is something you deal with regularly, you likely already know the main foods and drinks that can set it off: alcohol, soda, fried food, tomato sauce and citrus are all biggies. If you’ve cut ties with these worst offenders and are still experiencing the burn, it could be due to another food habit. To minimize symptoms, doctors and nutritionists specializing in heartburn say there are five major food rules to follow, which are explained below.

What Exactly Is Heartburn?

An important part of treating any health condition is understanding what’s happening in the body to cause it. Dr. Lauren Bleich, a gastroenterologist with Gastro Health in Acton, Massachusetts, told HuffPost that heartburn is a classic symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and is usually described as a burning sensation in the chest. GERD is a more serious version of acid reflux, which can also cause heartburn. If you experience heartburn every once in a while, you likely don’t have GERD, but if you experience it regularly, you may. Bleich said that other symptoms of GERD include difficulty swallowing, chest pain and a feeling of fullness in the throat.

“Think of the stomach as a one-way pump. Everything should be going from your mouth to the esophagus, to the stomach and to the small intestine. But if some of the stomach contents comes back into the esophagus, it’s called regurgitation. When there is acid and digestive juices that come back up, it hurts the esophagus and can lead to pain,” explained Dr. Kenneth Brown, a gastroenterologist and the host of the Gut Check Project podcast. Brown told HuffPost that it’s normal to experience a small amount of digestive juice regurgitation, but when someone starts experiencing pain from it, it’s referred to as heartburn.

Bleich explained it this way: “Heartburn occurs when acid produced in the stomach refluxes up into the esophagus. When one swallows food, the lower esophageal sphincter muscle at the lower esophagus relaxes to allow food and liquid to pass into the stomach and then tightens again. When the sphincter doesn’t close properly, stomach acid can move back up into the esophagus.”

Chocolate can cause heartburn? Say it ain't so.

the_burtons via Getty Images

Chocolate can cause heartburn? Say it ain’t so.

5 Sneaky Habits That Can Give You Heartburn

If you get heartburn regularly, you have probably already Googled which foods and drinks are most likely to cause it (or maybe you’ve gotten the low-down from your doctor). Just in case you haven’t, the major foods and drinks you want to minimize are spicy foods, carbonated beverages, citrus foods and drinks and foods high in fat (like fried food). But if that’s all you’re doing to manage your heartburn, it’s not enough. Abiding by the below five rules can help reduce symptoms, according to all the experts we talked to.

1. Drinking Coffee And Caffeinated Tea

This may hurt to hear, but Nour Zibdeh, a registered dietitian and author of “The Complete Acid Reflux Diet Plan,” told HuffPost that coffee is a major heartburn trigger. She also said that some types of tea are too, namely black tea and green tea. Dr. Lance Uradomo, an interventional gastroenterologist at City of Hope Orange County in Irvine, California, agreed, saying that the reason why is due to the caffeine in these drinks. “Caffeine is a well-established trigger for acid reflux. It can cause relaxation of that lower esophageal sphincter muscle, which allows more stomach acid to enter the esophagus,” he said.

Here’s the good news: You can still sip on tea—you just have to be more mindful of the type you go for. Zibdeh says that ginger tea with honey or slippery elm tea are both tea options that can help alleviate symptoms instead of aggravating symptoms.

2. Eating Chocolate

Brown told HuffPost that one common heartburn aggravator that many people don’t realize is chocolate. He explained that there are a couple of reasons for this. One is because chocolate has caffeine in it and, just like with coffee and tea, caffeine in chocolate can cause the lower esophageal sphincter muscle to relax, which can allow more stomach acid to enter the esophagus and cause heartburn.

“Chocolate also has a chemical in it called theobromine. Theobromine is a dilator and can relax the lower esophageal sphincter muscle,” Brown shared, naming a second reason why chocolate can cause heartburn.

3. Eating Before A Workout

While it’s true that fueling your body properly before and after a workout is important, if you experience heartburn regularly, Uradomo recommends waiting two hours after eating before doing any type of workout that puts pressure on the stomach, like crunches. Bleich agreed, saying, “Any exercise that increases abdominal pressure can trigger acid reflux. Examples of these exercises include crunches, heavy lifting or high-impact workouts.”

It's recommended to wait two hours after eating before doing any type of workout that puts pressure on the stomach.

South_agency via Getty Images

It’s recommended to wait two hours after eating before doing any type of workout that puts pressure on the stomach.

Zibdeh added to this, saying, “Heavy lifting, bouncing movements, exercises where the stomach isn’t below the esophagus (like certain yoga poses) and exercises that involve lying flat and squeeze the abdominal area (like crunches) are going to create pressure on the stomach and the lower esophageal sphincter valve and cause stomach content to splash back up. When the stomach is full, the heartburn will be worse.”

That said, Uradomo said this doesn’t mean you should stop working out completely. In fact, he told HuffPost that regular exercise can help alleviate symptoms. “Experiment with different kinds of exercise to find those you enjoy and that do not cause heartburn,” he said.

4. Eating Your Meals Too Close Together

Not leaving enough time between meals is another food habit experts say can cause heartburn. “Taking three-to-four-hour breaks between meals and snacks is an important strategy to incorporate long-term for overall digestive health. This is because breaks between meals help clean up the digestive tract and help the muscles that line the digestive tract to contract properly and push food downstream,” Zibdeh explained.

Zibdeh added that it can also be helpful to avoid oversized portions. “Larger meals are harder to digest, take too long to digest and may feed bacteria in the gut that produce excessive amounts of gas. All of these increase the risk of stomach content refluxing up,” she said.

5. Eating Within A Few Hours Of Bedtime

Another piece of advice to keep in mind when it comes to meal-timing is eating dinner early. “You don’t want to eat close to going to bed because you want to have at least a few hours for the digestive system to start so food is out of your stomach before you lie down,” Brown said. He explained that this is because if you lie down when there is still food being digested in your stomach, it’s easier for food and digestive juices to come back up into the esophagus — which is exactly what you want to avoid.

Brown added that people who do experience heartburn at night can experience tooth enamel damage because the stomach acid can wear away at the back of the teeth.

While following these food rules can help decrease heartburn, all the experts told HuffPost that if it’s something you’re experiencing regularly, you should see a gastroenterologist. “If your heartburn is disrupting your normal routine or keeping you from sleeping and you’ve tried making diet and lifestyle adjustments with no improvement, it’s time to see your doctor,” Uradomo said.

Zibdeh added that it can also be helpful to work with a dietitian specializing in acid reflux or GERD. “While a doctor can help you with testing, reaching a diagnosis and prescription medications, working with a dietitian will help you identify the best foods to eat that reduce heartburn and other digestive issues that increase reflux like bloating and burping, while also getting adequate nutrition,” she said.

Most important, know that heartburn is treatable. Just because it’s something you are experiencing now doesn’t mean you are doomed to live with it forever. Work with a doctor and follow the recommended guidelines. With time and effort, you’ll feel relief instead of the burn.

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