9 Ways to Make Living With Acid Reflux Disease Easier

Although you may have been diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), that doesn't mean you can't enjoy your life to its fullest. There are ways to control GERD that won't necessarily make your acid reflux go away, but it may help alleviate the symptoms enough so that you forget that they are there.

Controlling your acid reflux symptoms usually requires a combination of lifestyle changes. Following one of these tips may help but probably won't give you the results you deserve. By taking a more holistic approach, you are more likely to achieve control of your GERD symptoms over the long term.

There are 9 simple tips that can help:

Woman with acid reflux visiting doctor
patrickheagney / Getty Images

Eat Smaller Meals

By eating smaller meals, your stomach is less full and will produce far less stomach acid. This, in turn, reduces gastric pressure. According to a 2019 review of studies published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease, a large meal size combined with a higher caloric intake is tacitly linked to increased esophageal acid levels and abdominal distention in people with GERD.

A very full stomach also places physical pressure on the valve between your stomach and esophagus, known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This allows more gastric acid to seep from the stomach into the esophagus.

To reduce the risk of GERD while meeting your daily nutritional needs, eat six smaller meals equally spaced throughout the day rather than the usual three.

Eat Slowly

When you eat, chemical messengers are sent from the stomach to the brain, signaling when food is there. When the stomach is full, the brain responds with sensations of satiety (simply put, feeling full and satisfied).

However, it can take up to 15 minutes for those signals to reach the brain. By eating quickly, you risk overfilling the stomach before the messenger signals reach the brain. By eating slowly, your brain has time to catch up with your stomach and tell you when it is full.

To slow down the pace of your eating, follow these few simple rules:

  • Eat at a table rather than on the sofa or on the run.
  • Do not eat while watching TV or sitting at the computer.
  • Put down your fork or spoon between bites.
  • Mix food with the conversation.

If all else fails, try eating with your non-dominant hand. Unless you are ambidextrous, this simple fix is almost guaranteed to slow down the pace of a meal.

2:04

Avoid These Things If You Have GERD

Avoid Food Before Bedtime

Late-night snacking is never a good idea if you have GERD. When you lie flat after eating, gravity forces the contents of your stomach closer toward the LES (situated near the top of the stomach). If you eat a lot of food, the pressure against the LES increases even further.

To avoid this, avoid eating or drinking at least two hours before bedtime. If you have severe GERD symptoms, you may want to stop four hours beforehand.

Eating earlier meals not only ensures that the stomach is empty while sleeping but also reduces the level of nocturnal stomach acids, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility.

Elevate Your Head While Sleeping

When you sleep with your head higher than your stomach, gravity can help to reduce pressure against the LES and keep the contents of your stomach from refluxing into the esophagus. You can elevate your head in several ways:

  • Place extra pillows under your head (ideally stiffer foam pillows that won't collapse).
  • Place bricks or blocks under the legs at the head of your bed.
  • Purchase a wedge-shaped pillow either online or from most mattress stores.

The same general approach applies to naps. Some people find that napping in a chair can help prevent heartburn better than if napping in bed.

Avoid Trigger Foods

You probably already know some of the foods that trigger heartburn in you. Some cause heartburn by increasing stomach acid, whereas others do so by relaxing the LES. There are also foods that can directly irritate the lining of the esophagus, such as spicy foods, citrus fruits, coffee, and juices.

Alcohol is especially problematic. Not only does it increase the production of stomach acids but it relaxes the LES, allowing acid to reflux into the esophagus.

It can sometimes be hard to know which foods are causing GERD symptoms. If this is the case, consider keeping a heartburn journal (similar to a diet journal) in which you record the foods you eat and the degree of heartburn you experience after eating.

By ranking your heartburn on a scale of 1 to 10—1 representing mild heartburn and 10 representing severe and debilitating heartburn—you can characterize your symptoms more accurately and pinpoint which foods are causing the most trouble.

Use Antacids Correctly

Antacids can be a very effective means of treating acute heartburn. With that said, popping antacids whenever you have the slightest hint of heartburn can end up doing more harm than good.

The overuse of antacids can cause constipation, diarrhea, change in stool color, and stomach cramps. Products containing calcium may even cause kidney stones.

In addition, antacids can interfere with the activity of certain drugs, including HIV medications, thyroid hormones, and blood thinners like Coumadin (warfarin). To avoid interactions, an antacid may need to be taken anywhere from two to four hours before or after certain drugs.

Since antacids can take an hour or more to start working, your doctor may suggest taking an H2 blocker like Zantac (ranitidine) in combination with an antacid. If you still don't find relief, your doctor may recommend a proton pump inhibitor like Prilosec (omeprazole).

When to See a Doctor

If your GERD symptoms persist for more than two weeks, are increasing in intensity, or continue despite treatment with over-the-counter medications, see a gastroenterologist rather than self-treating.

Avoid Tight Clothing

Clothing that fits tightly around the waist can squeeze the stomach, forcing food upward toward the LES. As much as these clothes may make you look slimmer, they can also increase the likelihood of acid reflux even if you don't have GERD.

As a general rule, it is best to avoid tight-fitting belts, slenderizing undergarments, yoga pants, and tight trousers if you have GERD. Opt instead for loose-fitting garments, untucked shirts, and suspenders rather than belts.

Relax

Stress can make GERD symptoms worse. According to a 2013 study in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, stress doesn't so much "cause" GERD as it does intensify the perception of symptoms.

At times of stress, people are more responsive to reflux symptoms, making it seem as if stress is the trigger. By stopping, taking a few deep breathes, and relaxing, you can ease the anxiety that often accompanies acute GERD episodes and experience a more rapid easing of symptoms.

At the same time, daily stress management may serve as a "preventive" therapy by alleviating stress levels on a daily basis. Among some of the practices that may help:

Stop Smoking

Smoking is one of the worse things you can do if you have GERD. Not only does cigarette smoke irritate the esophagus, but it also increases the production of stomach acid by triggering inflammation in the lining of the stomach.

On top of that, smoking slows digestion, allowing food to remain in the stomach longer, while decreasing saliva production needed to neutralize stomach acids. Over time, smoking can also decrease the overall tone of the LES.

Quitting may not be easy, but the benefits invariably outweigh the risks. Quitting cigarettes will not only reduce your risk of GERD but decrease your likelihood of developing certain cancers, including esophageal cancer.

If you are unable to quit, ask your doctor about prescription smoking cessation aids, many of which are fully covered by insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

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