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Heartburn/GERD Health Center

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Heartburn: Spot Your Personal Triggers

Some foods and habits commonly trigger heartburn, while others affect only certain people.

2. Use a Food Diary to Track Heartburn Triggers

One way to track which of these common triggers affects you most is by keeping a food diary, says Robert Sandler, MD, MPH, chief of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's also a board member of the National Heartburn Alliance. "If you think something has triggered your reflux, write it down."

Keeping a food diary can help your doctor determine what's causing your symptoms. But be sure that what you're writing down is really reflux. Many people mistake other symptoms -- stomach problems and problems in the esophagus -- for reflux.

"There is a group of functional disorders of the GI tract, and reflux is one member of that family, but there are others," says Sandler. "The typical feeling of reflux is a warm or burning sensation in the sternum that moves up toward the throat. If that's not what you're experiencing, you may not have reflux but something else."

So when keeping track of your triggers, write down what the symptoms feel like as well as what you ate and what you did beforehand.

Also, note the timing of your heartburn symptoms. "Other gastrointestinal conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome, do not necessarily produce symptoms right after eating," says Prather. "But with reflux, you'll usually experience the heartburn symptoms within an hour after you ate the food that triggered it."

3. Avoid Heartburn With 'Clean Slate Eating'

What if you go out for Italian food and eat a meal with tomato sauce and red wine, only to experience that familiar burning sensation less than an hour later? How can you tell if it was the sauce, the wine, or both? You can't, says Prather. So the most effective way of finding your personal triggers is to start with a clean slate.

"Eliminate all the foods that are known to cause heartburn from your diet, and then add them back one by one, to find out which ones are causing the most problems for you," she says.

You can also minimize the effects of a heartburn-inducing food, like chocolate, by eating small amounts, only as part of a smaller meal, and not eating too late. "You might do fine with a big meal at breakfast but find yourself miserable if you eat a lot at dinner," Prather says. "And don't exercise vigorously or lie down for a couple of hours after eating. Instead, go for a walk. That helps your stomach to empty more."

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