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Heartburn Prevention Tips for Spicy Food Lovers

You don’t have to stop eating spicy foods just because you have heartburn.
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WebMD Feature

“How hot would you like that?” the server at my favorite Thai restaurant asks. My taste buds whisper: fiery. My belly moans, What about me?

I love a hot, spicy meal. But an hour later, like many people, I can end up wishing I’d never lifted my fork. The culprit? Heartburn and acid reflux. Officially known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, acid reflux occurs when food and stomach acids escape up into the esophagus through the valve at the top of the stomach. That causes the burning sensation that can sometimes rise up into the throat, known as heartburn.

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Surveys of heartburn sufferers suggest spicy foods are among of the worst offenders. Whether spicy foods  deserve their reputation is controversial, I’ve discovered. Many different foods can trigger heartburn.But luckily, you don’t have to say no to Chinese kung pao chicken, Mexican salsa, or fiery Thai noodle dishes. A few practical tips can help you put out the fire of heartburn before it starts.

Preventing Heartburn: Recognize Your Own Heartburn Triggers

Researchers have compiled a long list of foods that seem to trigger heartburn. These include alcohol, citrus fruits and juices, carbonated beverages, coffee and caffeine, chocolate, tomato sauce, fatty foods, mint, and, of course, spicy foods.

“But no single food stands out,” says Anish Sheth, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Yale University and co-author of What’s Your Poo Telling You? “For some people, the same food can cause problems after one meal but not after others.”

Dispelling Myths About Heartburn Triggers

In theory, foods most likely to cause acid reflux and symptoms of heartburn are those that cause the valve at the top of the stomach to relax. Mint, alcohol, and caffeinated coffee, among other foods, are believed to have that effect.

Yet when gastroenterologist Lauren B. Gerson, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University, and colleagues looked at trials designed to test the effects of these and other particular foods on heartburn symptoms, they found very little evidence to support the associations.

Even spicy foods may not deserve their reputation as being the worst culprits. Sure they taste hot, but that doesn’t mean they cause acid reflux. They may simply irritate the stomach.

“Still,” Gerson says, “it’s commonsense that if a particular food happens to cause you problems, the best advice is to avoid it.”

Since even heartburn sufferers can be misled by popular misconceptions, experts recommend keeping a food diary for several weeks.

“As soon as heartburn strikes, jot down what and how much you ate,” suggests dietitian Elaine Magee, author of Tell Me What to Eat If I Have Acid Reflux. “Also keep track of foods you thought might cause trouble but don’t. That way you won’t have to eliminate foods unnecessarily.”

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