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These 8 Food Culprits Could Be Making Your GERD Symptoms Worse

If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), you know how uncomfortable the symptoms can be. That feeling of heartburn can keep you awake at night, and regurgitation can leave a terrible taste in the back of your mouth. Plus, stomach acid flowing up into your esophagus can damage those delicate tissues over time.

Medication can help reduce GERD symptoms, and it’s an important part of getting this condition under control. But even if you’re taking medicine, paying attention to what you eat can make a big difference, too—some unexpected foods might be causing your symptoms to flare.

Brogan Taylor, a registered dietitian with Banner - University Medicine, explained more about the foods that can aggravate GERD symptoms and what you can eat instead to keep your stomach and esophagus feeling good. 

1. Spicy foods and hot peppers

Hot spices and peppers can trigger acid reflux, irritate the esophagus and make your stomach produce more acid. When your stomach makes more acid, it’s more likely that the acid will back up into the esophagus.

2. Citrus fruits and juices

These fruits are loaded with vitamins, but if you have GERD you might want to find other sources of those nutrients. Citrus fruits have a lot of acid that can make heartburn worse. 

3. Fatty and greasy foods

Fried foods and greasy food like pizza may relax the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the muscle that connects your esophagus and stomach . The LES helps keep stomach acid from flowing into the esophagus. When it’s relaxed, it’s easier for stomach acid to reach the esophagus and cause GERD symptoms.

4. Chocolate and caffeine

Like fatty and greasy foods, chocolate may relax the LES. And caffeine, found in chocolate, coffee, tea and other foods and drinks, may make your stomach produce more acid. “If you would rather not give up coffee or tea, try not to drink them on an empty stomach. That can reduce any symptoms,” Taylor said.

5. Peppermint and other mints

Mint can leave a fresh taste in your mouth, so you might not expect that it makes GERD symptoms worse. But it can relax the LES, so stomach acid might be more likely to flow back into the esophagus. 

6. Onions and garlic

These foods also contain compounds that may relax the LES. They are popular parts of a lot of dishes and meals, but you might want to replace them with fennel, celery or bell peppers if they are making your GERD symptoms worse. 

7. Tomatoes 

Tomatoes—and foods made from tomatoes like tomato sauce, tomato paste, salsa and ketchup—have a lot of acid. That acid may make heartburn and reflux worse if you have GERD. You can buy low-acid versions of some tomato products. Adding a bit of baking soda may also reduce the acid levels in tomato dishes.

8. Carbonated drinks

Carbonated drinks like sodas and sparkling water introduce gas into your digestive system. That gas can put pressure on the LES and make it easier for stomach acid to enter the esophagus.

How to find your GERD trigger foods

Tomatoes, onions, garlic, bubbly drinks — it can seem like avoiding the foods that may trigger GERD symptoms puts some serious limits on what you can eat. But not everyone with GERD reacts to all of these foods. You may find that mint is a problem, but a glass of orange juice is perfectly fine. 

To learn which foods trigger your GERD symptoms, track your symptoms and possible triggers in a journal or log. Note your food choices, meal times, physical activity, stress level and any symptoms. 

“If you’re not sure if something is causing symptoms, keep a food log for at least three days, but ideally for a week,” Taylor said. “This way, we can see the association if, for example, you have coffee at 7 a.m. and symptoms shortly after. We can also see if physical activity is helping to decrease symptoms.”

Taylor points out that one of the biggest triggers for GERD is stress. “Many people adjust their diet and increase their physical activity but have very stressful lifestyles and don’t see their symptoms improve. I recommend monitoring your symptoms to see if they are worse the day of or the day after a stressful day,” she said.

If that’s the case, stress-lowering techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and relaxation exercises may help.

Good food options for GERD

Plenty of foods are unlikely to trigger GERD symptoms. When you’re shopping for groceries, read labels and check for ingredients like spices, mint or high-fat content. 

Simple ingredients that are easy to digest are better choices. And if you’re overweight, choosing a diet that helps you lose weight may reduce symptoms.

Reach for:

  • Lean poultry and fish
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Eggs
  • Beans and legumes
  • Whole grains like whole-grain bread, brown rice and oats 
  • Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables like apples, pears, carrots and broccoli

Other tips for eating when you have GERD

It’s not just what you eat that can affect your GERD symptoms. Pay attention to your portion sizes and signals that you feel full. 

Overeating can put more pressure on your digestive system and make GERD symptoms worse. You may want to eat smaller meals more often throughout the day to help keep your symptoms under control.

Since GERD symptoms are often worse at night, it’s a good idea to finish your last meal two to three hours or more before you go to sleep. That way, your body can digest the food before you lay down, and acid is less likely to back up into the esophagus. 

The bottom line

If you have GERD, the foods you eat can impact your symptoms. By logging what you eat and the symptoms you have, you can figure out which foods make your symptoms worse and take steps to reduce their impact.

If the steps you’re taking on your own aren’t working, a dietitian can help you find the foods that trigger GERD symptoms and help you find ways to get the condition under control. To connect with a health care provider, reach out to Banner Health.

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