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January, 2009

What is GERD? When you suffer from heartburn, your stomach acids and enzymes are moving backward from your stomach up into your esophagus. You feel the "burn" because your esophagus does not have the same protective lining as your stomach. This reflux occurs when the "stopper," (called the lower esophageal sphincter) between your stomach and esophagus relaxes momentarily—because it is faulty or injured, or because you put pressure on the stomach by straining, bending over, or eating a large meal.

You may be at added risk for GERD if you are using certain medications; older than 65; obese or pregnant; eating a high fat diet; or using caffeine, alcohol, or tobacco.

Tips for Preventing Heartburn


Eat plenty of vegetables and low-fat foods. Fatty foods cause the stomach to release a hormone that relaxes the stopper between the stomach and esophagus. Also, fatty foods are slower to digest than low-fat foods. This means fatty foods hang around in the tummy and cause problems for more time than low-fat foods.

Avoid certain foods including chocolate, alcohol, spearmint, peppermint, spicy or acidic foods, tomatoes, and citrus fruits especially close to bedtime.

Eat smaller meals throughout the day—and avoid late-night meals. When you eat large meals, it leads to more stomach acid, and hence, more problems.

Drink uncarbonated, decaffeinated beverages. Colas filled with caffeine, carbonation, and an acid pH directly irritate the esophagus.

If you smoke, stop. Nicotine can add to reflux symptoms by either relaxing the stopper between the stomach and esophagus, increasing acid production, or irritating the esophageal lining.

In bed, elevate your head 4 to 6 inches. When you lie flat, the esophagus is horizontal and acids tend to remain inside it longer. To avoid exacerbating a bad situation, elevate your head (make gravity work in your favor!) and reduce some of the damage.

See a doctor if your heartburn persists despite these diet and lifestyle changes. A physician can help you determine if your medications are contributing toward the reflux problem.

Most importantly, don’t ignore your heartburn problem. Left untreated, your esophagus will be repeatedly exposed to damaging stomach acid and enzymes. This can cause ulceration and even permanent damage. Your symptoms and pain can worsen and even spread to other areas like the throat and voice box. A little prevention now can save you a lot of trouble in the future.

Source: David S. Utley, M.D., "Extinguishing the Burn," Nutrition Science News, Vol. 3, No. 6 (June 1998).