Do you suffer from heartburn? Some foods are obvious contributors, and you might already be avoiding them. But some others that you would ordinarily associate with a healthy diet, or at least one that’s not harmful, could be partly to blame for the all too familiar uncomfortable sensation.
Heartburn can happen occasionally, or it can be a chronic condition. For occasional sufferers, knowing what sets it off can help you watch your diet and avoid many, if not most, future episodes. For chronic sufferers, avoiding trigger foods could dramatically improve quality of life.
Here are 9 common heartburn triggers, some of which might surprise you:
Heartburn Trigger #1: Citrus Fruits
Oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes, and grapefruits are all packed with the essential nutrient, Vitamin C. And for most people, they are considered healthy. But they can also contribute to both occasional and chronic heartburn.
Robynne Chutkan, MD., founder of the Digestive Center for Women in Chevy Chase, Md. and gastroenterologist for Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C., explains to WebMD that citrus fruits are, by nature, very acidic. It’s those acids that can trigger heartburn.
If you don’t want to give up citrus fruits, try to eat them when you already have something else on your stomach.
Heartburn Trigger #2: Tomatoes and Tomato Products
Like citrus fruits, tomatoes are healthy. They contain the nutrient, Lycopene. But also like citrus, tomatoes are acidic. Eating a fresh tomato or tomato sauce can cause heartburn symptoms to emerge.
Daniel Mausner, MD. Mausner, section head of gastroenterology at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Center, N.Y., tells WebMD that anything that makes your mouth water can help counteract the effects of acidic foods. A sour candy could give you quick, if temporary, relief.
Heartburn Trigger #3: Spicy, Hot Foods
This trigger might not be as much as a surprise, but it’s still worth mentioning. Hot and spicy foods can be the culprit behind heartburn symptoms, Deepa A. Vasudevan, MD. Vasudevan, assistant professor of family medicine at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, tells WebMD.
Food that causes frequent or occasional heartburn is best left alone, but Vasudeven recommends a strategy if your trigger foods are among your favorite dishes. First, cut out the strongest and spiciest of the foods. Then begin reintroducing the same foods, but with the heat dialed back a bit. Milder foods can have similar flavor without risking a bout with heartburn.
Heartburn Trigger #4: Garlic and Onion
There are few vegetables or spices that are as widely used as garlic and onion. Unfortunately, Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and N.Y.- based nutritionist, tells WebMD that while some people do not have negative reactions to garlic and onion, other people do.
This could be a double whammy on your favorite dishes, as numerous Italian foods, and many others, are incomplete without these two potential offenders.
Taub-Dix also recommends defaulting to some bland foods, such as cottage cheese, toast, and baked chicken, to help keep symptoms in check.
Heartburn Trigger #5: Mint
What a surprise this might be. Many over-the-counter medications for heartburn relief are mint flavored. It makes sense, as mint is reported to settle the stomach. But mint can also relax the sphincter muscles that keep the stomach closed off from the esophagus, says Dr. Chutkan.
This sphincter is what helps keep stomach acids where they belong — in the stomach, and prevents them from traveling up to where they don’t belong — in the esophagus. When acids rise, that’s when heartburn symptoms rise along with them.
Heartburn Triggers #6: Fatty Foods
The list of fatty foods is certainly broad. It includes a nice steak, full fat dairy products, nuts, and many others that you might never suspect as triggers, says Dr. Chutkan. The reason these are heartburn inducers is not necessarily because of what they are, but because of how the digestive process is altered when you eat foods that are high in fat.
Fatty foods slow down digestion. You might have noticed after a meal that’s high in either animal or vegetable fat, your stomach can feel overly full, and the uncomfortable sensation could last a while. Because the stomach stays fuller longer after eating these foods, there is more pressure on the esophageal sphincter and for a longer period of time, and more stomach acids have time to build up.
Heartburn Trigger #7: Alcoholic Drinks
From beer and liquor to your favorite red wine, alcohol is the same kind of trigger as mint. Drinking alcohol can relax the esophageal sphincter, allowing stomach acids to rise into the esophagus.
Taub-Dix clarifies that a glass of wine isn’t cause for much alarm. But excessive alcohol can be. And if you combine your drink with another heartburn-triggering food, such as spicy and tomatoey pizza or pasta, or perhaps a thick steak, the combination could create the ideal conditions for heartburn to start.
Heartburn Trigger #8: Caffeinated Drinks
If it’s starting to seem like none of your favorite foods or drinks are safe, take heart. Although caffeine can be a strong heartburn trigger, Dr. Chutkan explains that you don’t have to give it up entirely.
As in most things, moderation is key to avoiding caffeine-related heartburn. You can probably have a cup or two of coffee without any ill effects. But drinking large quantities might make you wish you hadn’t.
Heartburn Trigger #9: Chocolate
As if coffee and red wine weren’t bad enough, chocolate is another heartburn trigger, at least for some people, according to Dr. Chutkan.
As a trigger food, chocolate is a one-two punch. It has caffeine, which you should use in moderation, but it also acts in a similar way as mint and alcohol, relaxing the esophageal sphincter and allowing acids to move from the stomach up the esophagus.
For some people, heartburn is just a nuisance that happens once in a while. But for those with frequent, persistent heartburn, damage to the esophagus can happen. And with damage to the esophagus, future episodes become more and more likely.
There are medications, such as Nexium, that can help with heartburn symptoms. This “little purple pill” works by slowing down the production of acid in the stomach. Over time, fewer episodes can help damaged esophageal tissues begin to heal.
If you suffer from frequent persistent heartburn, Nexium, combined with a moderate diet that avoids trigger foods, can help. In as little as 8 weeks, you could start feeling like your old self again.
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