Acid reflux or heartburn, also known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), is a digestive disorder that occurs when stomach acid enters the esophagus and causes irritation (1). If you have frequent acid reflux more than twice a week, we commonly know it as GERD. Acid reflux symptoms include burning in the chest, normally after eating. Acid reflux is also interchangeable with terms like heartburn, acid indigestion, and reflux (2).
GERD is very prominent in the United States, affecting 18.5 million people in the United States, and it is especially high in the elderly population (3). Many factors besides diet can cause persistent acid reflux or GERD. These include chronic stress, certain medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and some blood pressure medication, diet, physical inactivity, smoking, obesity, hypothyroidism, and sensitivities to specific trigger foods (1), (2), (4), (5), (6).
Summary: Acid reflux, known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), occurs when stomach acid or bile flows back into the esophagus. This is commonly known as heartburn. Frequent acid reflux can be caused by chronic stress, sedentary lifestyles, medications, diet, smoking, obesity, hypothyroidism, or specific food triggers.
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Foods that trigger & can cause Acid reflux (Heartburn)
This disease is common, but there are many things you can do to stop it in its tracks. It is important to keep a healthy balanced diet and get to the root cause of issues like acid reflux if you want to be able to consume foods you once were able to enjoy. Common triggers of acid reflux or GERD include specific foods. Find out what foods can trigger acid reflux and what might be helpful to stop eating today.
1. Spicy Foods
Spicy foods are a common trigger food for many who suffer from acid reflux or GERD (7). However, the exact reason for this is unknown (8). If these foods trigger your heartburn, try to avoid foods like spicy peppers, certain seasonings, hot and spicy stews, and spicy condiments like hot sauce.
Summary: Avoid spicy peppers and seasonings, hot and spicy stews, and condiments like hot sauce if these foods trigger your GERD. Instead, opt for more mild flavors such as basil, oregano, or thyme. Spicy flavors can irritate the esophagus, making symptoms worse.
2. Caffeinated Tea
Tea is another common trigger, although this varies per person (9). Certain types of tea may irritate the food pipe lining more than others as well. You may be ok with non-caffeinated teas, for example. Those who suffer from acid reflux report caffeinated teas, like green or black tea, cause the more trouble (10).
However, herbal teas like ginger tea in small doses can aid in relief for indigestion. Although more studies are needed to understand if it is beneficial for acid reflux specifically, ginger is naturally anti-inflammatory and may be beneficial for indigestion (11).
Summary: Caffeinated teas, such as green and black teas, generally cause more issues with GERD. However, tolerance of tea varies per person. Also, herbal ginger tea in small doses may actually help relieve indigestion, but more research is needed.
Many people report coffee as a trigger for acid reflux because it is highly acidic. Previously it was thought that acidic foods caused a spasm or weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter, which can cause acid reflux (12). However, despite coffee’s acidity studies have found no association between coffee consumption and GERD (13). Coffee is a common drink among all cultures, but for those who find that their GERD is triggered by coffee, it might be best to avoid it until symptoms resolve.
The foods that trigger acid reflux vary per person and can frequently change in time as well. There are many alternatives to coffee that do not have any acid, too. If coffee is a trigger for you, choose an alternative beverage instead.
Summary: Coffee is highly acidic, making it a hard beverage to tolerate for some people with GERD. Acidic foods was thought to cause weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter, which causes reflux. However, reactions to coffee vary per person. Some have to cut it out completely, while others can tolerate lower amounts.
4. Citrus Juices and Soda
Citrus juices like lemon, orange juice are acidic. For some people, acidic juices may cause acid reflux to ignite (14). Although this also varies from person to person.
Soda is another beverage to that may trigger acid reflux for some people. Soda is high in acid, caffeine, and the carbonation is thought to contribute to indigestion. For some people with GERD, carbonated drinks such as soda may trigger symptoms (15).
Summary: Citrus juice such as lemon, orange, or grapefruit, are highly acidic. These highly acidic foods can cause or worsen reflux. Soda may also cause acid reflux because the carbonation is thought to contribute to indigestion.
Peppermint may not be good choice for some who suffer from acid reflux because one study found that mint can relaxed the esophagus and increased GERD symptoms in some people (16). Peppermint or mint, in general, can be in many different recipes. If mint triggers your reflux, make sure to avoid it when eating out in restaurants as best as possible. Mint leaves, peppermint tea, and anything that may cause extra symptoms for you.
Summary: Peppermint can irritate the gut lining. Avoid all types of mint leaves in general, including mint or peppermint tea, gum, or desserts.
Cocoa and cacao are generally healthy food in moderation for most, so why is it bad for those with acid reflux? Cocoa is thought to cause the esophageal sphincter to push out serotonin. When that happens, acid produces more freely in the esophagus, which can trigger acid reflux (17). Studies on the effects of eating chocolate on GERD symptoms are mixed (18). Some people may experience symptoms with eating chocolate, while for others, it may be well tolerated.
Summary: Chocolate is thought to relax the esophageal sphincter to release serotonin, letting acid to move freely into the esophagus. Hence, causing heartburn. Limit cocoa and cacao intake if chocolate triggers your GERD symptoms.
Garlic is one of the most common additives in the kitchen. But one study found that for some people garlic relaxes the esophagus, producing symptoms of acid reflux (19). If garlic is irritating, switch to a non-spicy seasoning with just as much flavoring, without the irritation that garlic can give.
Summary: Garlic is used frequently, but can irritate the esophagus and cause acid reflux. Swap garlic with non-spicy flavors such as basil, dill, parsley, or thyme.
8. Raw Onions
Onions are a portion of healthy food for many, but they may be a trigger for those with acid reflux (20). Cooked onions may not be as triggering for with acid reflux, but everyone is unique to what they can eat. Cooking onions may help reduce any symptoms that may arise with acid reflux or GERD.
Summary: Onions can trigger acid reflux in some people. They stimulate acid production, especially when consumed raw. Cooking onions may help with symptoms, but this varies per person. Reduce or eliminate onions from the diet if you experience acid reflux when eating them, and use less intense flavors such as basil, parsley, or thyme to flavor foods.
Alcohol is highly acidic, so it is one of the worst contributors to acid reflux (21), (22). Red wine is particularly an issue because of its high acidity compared to other alcoholic drinks. Since alcohol normally comes with some type of juice or soda mixture, it’s a cocktail for extreme acid reflux among those who suffer from it.
Summary: Alcohol is highly acidic, especially red wine. Mixing alcohol with juice or soda can further cause GERD symptoms. Reduce or eliminate alcohol intake if you experience frequent heart burn.
Acid reflux or GERD should not be left untreated (23). Always speak to your doctor about what you can do to lower your risk. Many foods can trigger the onset of acid reflux or GERD, so it’s important to watch what you eat and pay attention to what specific foods bother you.
Remember that acid reflux comes with several risk factors beyond food, too. They can include Hiatal hernias, obesity, pregnancy, smoking, certain medications, chronic stress, and more (4), (21), (24), (25), (26), (27), (28). Acid reflux can happen from an imbalance in the gut microbiome, too (29). Try to maintain a healthy, balanced diet and any trigger foods to avoid acid reflux flare-ups (30). Reach out to your doctor if you think you have acid reflux and see if there is anything you can do to resolve it.