Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid flows upward into your esophagus, the pipe that joins your mouth to your stomach, causing pain in your chest and throat. It is a common condition – 1 in 5 people in the US experience acid reflux.
Acid reflux can be uncomfortable, but lifestyle changes and home remedies can help ease your symptoms without medication. Here are a few steps you can take to treat acid reflux at home.
What is acid reflux?
Normally, when you eat or drink, food travels down your esophagus to a muscle known as the esophageal sphincter, which opens to let food into your stomach. Acid reflux happens when this sphincter becomes weak or relaxes at the wrong time, allowing stomach acid to splash back up into your esophagus. This painful burning sensation in your lower chest can be unpleasant, and even downright painful. This can cause some uncomfortable gastric reflux symptoms like:
- Pain or burning feeling in your chest
- Pain or discomfort in your throat
- Sour taste in your mouth
- Regurgitation of acidic liquid into your mouth or throat
- Bad breath
- Recurrent cough or hiccups
- Hoarse voice
What can cause acid reflux?
Though you may be more likely to experience acid reflux if you are pregnant or obese, there are many reasons it could occur. Some of the most common causes of acid reflux include:
- Eating an especially large meal
- Physical inactivity
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Eating late at night
- Certain foods or drinks like spicy food, fried food, alcohol, or coffee
- Smoking cigarettes
- Lying flat
Interestingly, pregnant women are more susceptible to acid reflux, particularly in the later stages because the baby begins to push upwards onto the stomach. Let’s face it, there’s not much room in there! Thankfully though, it usually goes away once the baby is born, although some women experience heartburn for a little while after.
What is acid reflux disease?
If it doesn’t happen often, you might be able to manage it with lifestyle changes, but if it’s a chronic problem that doesn’t respond to these changes, you could have gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. GERD is diagnosed when heartburn occurs on a regular basis, usually at least twice per week. It often begins after eating, especially spicy or fatty food, or drinking alcohol. Although heartburn is a typical sign, there are some other uncomfortable symptoms.
"Lifestyle changes are the first treatment if the acid reflux is bothersome," says Jacqueline Wolf, MD, a gastroenterologist, and professor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. This may involve avoiding some of the causes listed above, but there are also several proven at-home treatments to help control acid reflux.
1. Elevate your upper body while sleeping:
Acid reflux often gets worse at night, because when you lie down, it is easier for stomach acid to flow into your esophagus. You can improve nighttime symptoms by changing the angle of your body during sleep.
Specifically, it is helpful to raise your head and shoulders above your stomach and keep your esophagus tilted downward. For example, you can elevate the head of your bed or prop yourself up on a slanted pillow. "This lets gravity help clear anything that comes into the esophagus at night," says Wolf.
A small study of 20 people published in 2011 in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that people who elevated the head of their beds with an 8-inch block for one week saw significant improvements in their heartburn symptoms and had less disturbed sleep.
And a 2016 review of four studies found that even for people already taking acid reflux medications, adding an elevated sleeping position helped symptoms more than just taking medication alone.
To elevate your bed, you can use bed risers under the top two feet of your bed frame, or if this isn't possible, you can buy a sloped pillow to help angle your head and shoulders upward while sleeping.
2. Try taking Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL):
Licorice is an herb that has long been used to help soothe stomach ailments. DGL is an altered type of licorice that has had its glycyrrhizin compound removed, as this can raise blood pressure.
DGL works to treat acid reflux because it helps to reduce inflammation in your esophagus. Inflammation, a reaction caused by your immune system, can be helpful when you need to heal a wound or fight an infection, but it can also worsen health problems like acid reflux for some people. This is because your immune system releases inflammatory cells called cytokines that can damage the lining of your esophagus.
Although DGL has been proven to work when combined with other acid reflux treatments, more research is needed to see how it works on its own.
DGL generally comes as a chewable tablet and can come in multiple flavors for people who don't like the taste of licorice. To use DGL for acid reflux, you should take one 400 mg tablet 20 minutes before you eat a meal or 20 minutes before going to bed if you have nighttime symptoms.
Other herbal remedies that may also help with acid reflux are as follows:
- Marshmallow root
3. Eat smaller meals:
Eating large meals puts greater pressure on the sphincter that separates your esophagus from your stomach. This makes the sphincter more likely to open and allow acid to flow upward into your esophagus. Swapping out big meals for more frequent smaller meals can help ease your symptoms.
For example, instead of eating three large meals, try spreading out those portions into five smaller meals.
4. Limit coffee intake:
If you are a coffee drinker, cutting down or cutting out your daily cups could help reduce acid reflux. This is because when you drink coffee, your stomach is triggered into creating more stomach acid, which can become backed up and flow into your esophagus. The caffeine in coffee also causes your esophageal sphincter to relax, allowing stomach contents to travel upward.
Don't Forget to Look at your Diet
Diet is a major contributing factor to the onset of acid reflux and GERD. Fibre, however, could be a savior. For example, low fiber intake is linked with reduced motility and delayed emptying of your stomach, both of which can increase the likelihood of reflux. A 2018 study found that increasing fiber intake reduces heartburn frequency and pressure on the esophageal sphincter. Plus, your gut bacteria love dietary fiber because it provides them with energy to carry out vital health functions and keep your gut microbiome balanced and diverse.
Acidic tummy: things to remember
Acid reflux disease is a common condition and is on the rise in the western world, alongside diseases such as obesity and diabetes. This is largely due to the western diet which has the poor nutritious quality and sedentary lifestyles. But there are things you can do to reduce the risk of acid reflux disrupting your life. Just remember:
- Acid reflux is not caused by too much stomach acid.
- Acid reflux happens when stomach acid travels back into your esophagus.
- If it happens more than twice a week, it’s a gastroesophageal disease (GERD).
- Extra weight on your waist is linked to acid reflux.
- Your lifestyle can help prevent or encourage acid reflux.
- There could be a link between the condition and gut dysbiosis.
- Ask your doctor about heartburn, it’s a proper medical problem.
- Surgery is a last resort in many cases of GERD.
- A fiber-rich diet, gentle exercise, quitting smoking, and weight loss can help.