You wake in the night, your chest burning. Sometimes the pain is so intense you think it's a heart attack.
For the 60 million Americans who get heartburnat least once a month, the pain isn't just a small inconvenience. Heartburn can affect almost everything you do, keeping you from sleeping at night and functioning well during the day.
Heartburn: Why It Happens
A muscular ring between the end of the esophagus and the beginning of the stomach normally keeps stomach acid where it belongs -- in the stomach. But in people with frequent heartburn, this area, the lower esophageal sphincter muscle (LES), may not prevent stomach acid from splashing up into the esophagus.
Does this mean you just have to live with heartburn? No! A recent survey conducted by the National Heartburn Alliance (NHBA) revealed that 92% of frequent heartburn sufferers point to food as the primary cause of their digestive discomfort.
So, if a change in diet can help you avoid heartburn, which foods should you choose to lose to help head off the pain?
Heartburn Relief: Food Facts
Though heartburn triggers can vary from person to person, certain food and drinks are more prone to allowing stomach acid to splash up into your esophagus, including:
Meats. Ground beef, marbled sirloin, chicken nugget-style, and chicken/buffalo wings.
Fats, Oils & Sweets. Chocolate, regular corn and potato chips, high-fat butter cookies, brownies, doughnuts, creamy and oily salad dressings, fried or fatty food in general.
Fruits, Vegetables & Juice. Orange juice, lemon, lemonade, grapefruit juice, cranberry juice, tomato, mashed potatoes, French fries, raw onion, potato salad.
Other Beverages. Liquor, wine, coffee, and tea.
Grains. Macaroni and cheese, spaghetti with marinara sauce.
Dairy. Sour cream, milk shake, ice cream, regular cottage cheese.
Foods and beverages like these contribute to heartburn (and the more serious GERD) by lessening the effectiveness of the LES to keep stomach contents in the stomach. Smoking also plays a large role, and carbonated beverages should be added to the list as they can put pressure on the stomach, forcing stomach acid back up into the esophagus.
Avoid the foods and beverages above -- and eat smaller meals -- and you may decrease the amount of reflux from your stomach into the esophagus.
Yet changing what you eat isn't the only way to avoid the horrors of heartburn, there are simple lifestyle changes you can make as well.
3 Heartburn-Preventing Lifestyle Changes
While watching what you eat and drink can help reduce your occurrences of heartburn, there are a few changes you can make in everyday life that can go hand in hand.
Watch Portion Size. Larger meals and higher-fat meals tend to stay in the stomach longer before moving into the small intestine, so the LES and esophagus are potentially exposed to stomach contents/acid for a longer time, according to Pat Baird, RD, with the National Heartburn Alliance.
So if you have frequent or occasional heartburn, it helps to keep meals in your stomach for as short a time as possible -- that means watching portion size.
Keep a Heartburn and Food Journal: "Keep in mind that anything we say about food and heartburn are generalizations and in any given individual, all bets are off," explains Shekhar Challa, MD, president of Kansas Medical Clinic and author of Spurn the Burn, Treat the Heat.
That's why it's important to keep a heartburn journal, discovering what triggers your heartburn, whether it's eating peppermint, drinking fruit juice, or lying down after a meal.
To make the most of your log, record symptoms, the time they occurred, what you ate, and activities you engaged in before the discomfort started.
Eat Out, Right. Many of us end up eating out many times a week and restaurants definitely offer a few challenge for those with heartburn. But, once you know what your personal heartburn triggers are, eating out can be easier, leaving just two important restaurant challenges:
High-fat foods. Choose low-fat options when you eat out and you'll avoid one of the prime triggers for heartburn -- fatty foods.
Huge portions. Eating too much can increase stomach pressure, causing acidic stomach contents to splash back into the esophagus. When you eat out, avoid big portions or take half your meal home.
Simple changes in diet and lifestyle can yield big heartburn relief. That's why it's a good idea to take the time to track your triggers, avoid the foods that irritate your heartburn, and make a few behavioral changes -- and reap the relief that follows.
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD is the author of "Tell Me What to Eat If I Have Acid Reflux