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HealthInfo Canterbury

Eating & lifestyle when you have heartburn

GORDHeartburn is known by several names. It's also called indigestion, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), and reflux. It is very common, and almost everyone has it at some time.

Heartburn happens when the valve (also called the sphincter) at the top of your stomach relaxes or weakens. As a result, acid or occasionally stomach contents can flow back into your food pipe (your oesophagus). This can irritate the lining of your oesophagus and you may feel discomfort or even pain rising up from your chest to your neck.

Most people can manage heartburn with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications, such as Mylanta or Gaviscon. But some people with heartburn may need stronger medications, or even surgery, to reduce their symptoms.

If you have heartburn and you have lost weight without trying, have difficulty or pain swallowing food and fluid, or are vomiting, you should see your GP. You should also see your GP if you have heartburn that does not improve after making the lifestyle changes below, or a short course of over-the-counter antacids.

How to manage heartburn

There are several things you can do to ease your symptoms and reduce how often you have heartburn.

Don't smoke

Smoking can increase the amount of acid your stomach makes. It can also weaken the sphincter valve, which stops acid flowing back into your oesophagus.

Maintain a healthy weight

If you are overweight, losing weight may help to ease your symptoms. Excess weight, especially if it's around your middle, puts extra pressure on your stomach and encourages acid to flow back into your oesophagus.

Avoid tight-fitting clothing

Clothes or belts that fit tightly around your waist put pressure on your stomach and will encourage acid reflux.

Avoid foods and drinks that trigger heartburn

Some foods and drinks can make heartburn worse in some people. Keep a food diary and record whether certain foods and drinks make your heartburn better or worse. You can then avoid those that make it worse.

Common foods and drinks that can trigger heartburn or make it worse include:

Eat smaller meals

Eating too much food at one time can make heartburn worse. Rather than having three large meals a day, try having smaller meals more often. Also eat slowly and chew your food well.

Don't lie down after eating

Wait at least three hours after eating before you lie down or go to bed.

Raise the head of your bed

If you often have heartburn at night, raising the head of your bed by around 20 cm (8 inches) may help. You can do this by putting wood or blocks under the feet of your bed or by putting pillows under the upper part of your mattress. Your oesophagus needs to be higher than your stomach, so don't use extra pillows on top of the mattress. This will only raise your head and may give you a sore neck.

Try to get enough sleep and avoid sleeping on your right side

Lack of sleep and lying on your right side can make heartburn worse. They can relax your sphincter valve, which stops acid flowing back into your oesophagus. If you have heartburn at night, try lying on your left side.

Herbal remedies

Herbal remedies sometimes used for heartburn include liquorice, slippery elm, chamomile, marshmallow and others. However, herbal remedies can have serious side effects, and they may interfere with any medicines you are taking. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice before you begin any herbal remedy.

Manage stress

Getting enough sleep and being active can help to reduce stress. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, tai chi or muscle relaxation exercises may help.

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by GP liaison, Gastroenterology, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed June 2018.


Page reference: 189761

Review key: HIARH-24342