It’s estimated that about 60 million Americans suffer from heartburn or acid reflux at least once a month, and 15 million suffer from it every day. A smaller but substantial percentage of people have heartburn so often that it has been diagnosed as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). With stats like this, it’s no wonder that one class of heartburn remedies (collectively known as proton-pump inhibitors) racked up a whopping $13.9 billion in sales in 2008.
The burning sensation of heartburn is caused by stomach acid backing up in the esophagus. Normally, strong involuntary contractions keep everything moving down into the stomach, and a powerful muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter keeps it there. If that sphincter isn’t closing properly, acids can flow backward, or reflux, and they can irritate, inflame, and even erode your esophageal lining.
But before you reach for medicine to help ease your symptoms, there are some small changes you can make to your diet and other habits that can go a long way toward reducing the likelihood of heartburn and possibly eliminating it, such as:
- Avoiding spicy, acidic, and fatty foods.
- Reducing the amount of alcohol you drink.
- Reducing caffeinated or carbonated drinks.
- Limiting chocolate, garlic, onions, and peppermint.
- Not lying down until at least three hours after a meal.
- Keeping your head elevated while sleeping, at least four to six inches, and trying to sleep on your left side.
- Adding more fiber to your diet; some research shows this could help.
- Not smoking: Nicotine relaxes the esophageal sphincter and increases acid production.
- Losing weight if you need to. Being even slightly overweight puts pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, causing reflux. Even losing a few pounds can help.
- Chewing gum after a meal. One small study found that people who chewed gum after a high-fat meal had reduced acid levels; another study showed that people who chewed gum for an hour after breakfast had reduced symptoms for up to three hours.
—Lisa Gill, editor, prescription drugs
If you do need to treat your heartburn or GERD with medication, read our latest Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs report to learn more. Find out more about our Best Buy Drugs program, which evaluates more than 200 drugs for dozens of common conditions.