How to Prevent Heartburn

Occasional heartburn is very common. But for some people, it is more frequent and can interfere with daily life. The good news is that there are simple lifestyle strategies that can help prevent episodes of heartburn. These include rethinking how and what you eat and drink, your sleeping habits, what medications you take, how you dress, and more.

If you are diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), these heartburn prevention tips are ones that are likely to be included in your treatment plan as well.

how to prevent heartburn
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell​

Log Your Symptoms

Record what triggered your acid reflux episodes, the severity of each episode, how your body reacts, and what gives you relief.

Then take this information to your doctor so the both of you can determine what lifestyle changes you will need to make and what treatments will give you maximum relief.

Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES)

The valve at the junction between the esophagus and stomach

If the LES isn't working properly or relaxes inappropriately, stomach acid and food can reflux back up into the esophagus. This can irritate the esophagus, causing heartburn.

Avoid Smoking and Smoke Exposure

Smoking leads to more heartburn in several ways:

  • Smoking reduces saliva production, giving you less of this naturally alkaline fluid to help neutralize stomach acid.
  • Smoking can weaken and relax the LES.
  • Smokers are prone to coughing, which increases abdominal pressure and can lead to heartburn.

Exposure to secondhand smoke is also linked to heartburn, so you should avoid places where people smoke.

Modify What You Eat and Drink

What you eat and drink, as well as the timing, may trigger heartburn. Some culprits are common, while others only affect some individuals.

Dietary Patterns

The LES tends to relax when you lie down, and a full stomach can cause stomach contents to press harder against the LES.

Your digestive system slows down when you sleep. The food in your stomach stays there longer at the same time you are in a prime position for food to be refluxed.

With this in mind:

  • Try eating six smaller meals each day instead of three larger ones. Or you can try having your larger meal earlier in the day and a light meal for supper.
  • Avoid late-night snacking.
  • Eat while sitting upright and remain upright (sitting or standing) for 45 minutes to an hour after eating.
  • Don't lie down or go to bed for two to three hours after eating.

Drink plenty of water is also important, as it helps with digestion. However, drinking too much water at one time increases the volume of stomach contents and can worsen heartburn symptoms.

It is better to drink smaller amounts throughout the day rather than large amounts less often. Another trick is to drink a glass of lukewarm water or decaffeinated tea after a meal to dilute and flush out stomach acid.

Chewing gum after a meal can also help prevent heartburn. It stimulates saliva, which acts to buffer stomach acid, and the saliva bathes the throat to protect it.

Food Triggers

Certain foods can trigger heartburn symptoms in many people, and it's best for people with chronic heartburn to limit or completely avoid these foods and beverages.

Though everyone is different, here is a list of the most problematic foods for people with heartburn:

  • Deep-fried foods are one of the major triggers of heartburn and acid reflux. French fries, fried chicken, blooming onions, and other oil-drenched foods are hard to digest and can increase your chances of having a heartburn episode.
  • Fatty foods slow digestion. The longer you have food lingering in your stomach, the more likely you will feel heartburn. Steer clear of highly fatty foods and meals like cheesy casseroles, pizza, and desserts. Marbled cuts of meat, the skin of poultry, and creamy sauces could also pose a problem for heartburn.
  • Acidic foods like citrus fruits can increase heartburn. Avoid oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and their juices.
  • Tomatoes and tomato products (tomato sauce, tomato paste, tomato juice) can trigger heartburn. Foods that combine several heartburn offenders, such as pizza (tomato sauce and fatty cheese) or lasagna (tomato sauce, cheese, and meat) can be particularly problematic for people prone to heartburn.
  • Coffee has two strikes against it when it comes to heartburn. Caffeine can stimulate acid, plus coffee is an acidic beverage. You may find you can tolerate decaf, but you may have to cut out coffee altogether to see if that helps reduce heartburn episodes.
  • Chocolate can prevent the LES from fully closing, which then causes stomach acid to creep up into the esophagus, causing heartburn.
  • Peppermint relaxes the LES. While peppermint tea might seem like a soothing remedy for heartburn, it can make it worse.
  • Spicy foods are another trigger for heartburn, as they can irritate the esophagus. Get to know your spice threshold.

When eating out or cooking at home, consider having these foods that are less likely to trigger heartburn:

  • Lean cuts of meat
  • Sandwiches with turkey, chicken, or roast beef on whole-grain bread
  • Grilled or roasted foods
  • Broth-based soups
  • Steamed or raw vegetables
  • Baked potatoes topped with low-fat salad dressing
  • Salads with lean protein and low-fat or no-fat salad dressings (but not citrus-based)

Alcohol Consumption

Alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine, and distilled spirits, can trigger heartburn. Alcohol increases the amount of acid the stomach produces and relaxes the LES.

For some people, an occasional alcoholic drink doesn't cause reflux. For others, even a small drink will result in heartburn.

Keep track of which alcoholic drinks aggravate your heartburn and avoid them as much as possible. In particular, be mindful of cocktails that include acidic mixers, like orange juice.

Manage Your Weight

Whether due to belly fat or being pregnant, excess weight on the abdomen increases abdominal pressure, which can push stomach contents up into the esophagus.

Since eating smaller meals seems to help with heartburn, reducing your portion size can have a double benefit if you want to lose weight.

For many people, as little as a 10% decrease in weight will improve their heartburn symptoms.

Wear Loose Clothing

Don't wear belts, slenderizing undergarments, or clothes that are tight-fitting around the waist. These items can squeeze the stomach, force food up against the LES, and cause reflux and heartburn.

Check Your Medications

Medications linked to heartburn and GERD include:

  • Asthma medications
  • Calcium channel blockers used to treat high blood pressure
  • Antihistamines used to treat allergy symptoms
  • Pain-relief medications
  • Sedatives
  • Antidepressants

Talk to your doctor about any prescriptions, over-the-counter products, and supplements you are taking. Your doctor may be able to change the schedule of your medications to help reduce the effects.

Also, if you take a medication to prevent heartburn there may be a better time to take it if you have nighttime heartburn.

Exercise Wisely

Exercise and other vigorous activities like shoveling snow or hard manual labor can cause the contents of the stomach to move around and lead to heartburn.

Exercise is still an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, so use these tips to stay active without triggering your heartburn:

  • Wait at least an hour after eating before you begin to exercise or exert yourself.
  • Avoid the food and drink heartburn triggers before exercise in particular.
  • Choose your exercise carefully. Higher-impact activities, such as running or jogging, can increase your chances of getting heartburn compared to lower-impact activities, such as walking, biking, or swimming.

Keep Stress in Check

More than half of people who have frequent heartburn say a hectic lifestyle and work-related stress increases their symptoms. While stress hasn't been linked to heartburn directly, it is known that it can lead to behaviors that can trigger heartburn.

During stressful times, routines are disrupted and people may not follow their normal ways of making meals, exercising, and taking medication. It is important to find ways to alleviate the stress and, thus, make stress-related heartburn less likely:

  • Regular exercise helps to lower stress.
  • Get seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Take a quick mental break to relax, thinking of a pleasant place or situation.

Avoid Nighttime Heartburn

Nighttime heartburn is a common problem, including during pregnancy. In addition to not eating within two to three hours of bedtime:

  • Sleep with your head and shoulders elevated. Raise the head of the bed 6 to 8 inches using blocks of wood or risers. You could also use a foam wedge or a sleeping wedge pillow. You shouldn't simply use extra pillows as you can create a bend at your waist rather than a slope, increasing the pressure on the stomach.
  • Sleep on your left side. This position aids digestion and helps with the removal of stomach acid.
  • Make sure your pajamas are loose-fitting.
  • Take an antacid when heartburn hits. Antacids will work very quickly on heartburn you may be experiencing before you go to bed.

How Your Doctor Can Help

If your heartburn is frequent and it is upsetting your daily life, have it evaluated by your doctor. Chronic heartburn is a symptom of GERD and some other digestive disorders.

Un- and under-treated acid reflux may lead to complications, including esophageal cancer. Your doctor can prescribe a treatment for heartburn or acid reflux that can reduce these risks.

If you are prescribed medication for heartburn, be sure to take your medication at the same time every day. If you are prone to forgetting, set an alarm to remind you or take your medication when you do another daily activity that you don't forget doing, such as brushing your teeth or washing your face.

If you are taking an antacid more than once or twice a week, see your doctor about modifying your treatment plan.

Heartburn Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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Article Sources
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