Heartburn affects more than 60 million Americans every month.
It is best described as a painful, burning sensation that occurs in the lower chest area.
Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, a condition where stomach acid escapes into the esophagus, the tube that delivers food and beverages to your stomach.
Normally, stomach acid cannot escape into the esophagus because of a barrier called the lower esophageal sphincter. This is a ring-like muscle that naturally stays closed, and normally only opens when you swallow or belch.
However, in people with acid reflux, this muscle is often weakened. This is one reason why people with acid reflux experience heartburn.
Diet plays an important role in heartburn. Many foods can relax the lower esophageal sphincter, which allows food to escape into the esophagus and cause heartburn.
Here are 11 foods that can cause heartburn.
1. High-Fat Foods
High-fat foods may cause heartburn. Unfortunately, this includes incredibly healthy and nutritious foods like avocados, cheese, and nuts.
There are two ways that high-fat foods can trigger heartburn.
First, they may relax the lower esophageal sphincter, the muscle that acts as a barrier between the esophagus and the stomach. When this muscle relaxes, stomach acid can escape from the stomach into the esophagus and cause heartburn.
Second, high-fat foods stimulate the release of the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK). This hormone may also relax the lower esophageal sphincter and cause acid reflux.
In addition, CCK encourages food to stay in the stomach longer so it can be better digested. Sadly, this may also increase the risk of acid reflux, which can cause heartburn.
It’s important to note that this does not only apply to healthy foods that are rich in fats. It also applies to fried foods and takeout meals that are high in fat.
Foods that are high in fat may cause heartburn by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter. Fat also promotes the release of CCK, which may relax the sphincter and let food sit in the stomach for longer — both risk factors for heartburn.
Mints like peppermint and spearmint are often thought to soothe digestive conditions. However, there is some evidence that these mints may cause heartburn.
One study found that high doses of spearmint were linked with acid reflux symptoms.
Surprisingly, spearmint did not relax the lower esophageal sphincter. Instead, researchers believe that spearmint may cause heartburn by irritating the lining of the esophagus.
Another study of more than 500 people found that those who consumed peppermint tea daily had twice the risk of heartburn.
That said, there is limited evidence of a link between mint and heartburn. If you feel that mint makes your heartburn worse, then it’s best to avoid it.
Mints like peppermint and spearmint may cause heartburn. If you experience heartburn after consuming mint, it is best to avoid it.
3. Citrus Juices
Drinking citrus juices may trigger heartburn symptoms.
For example, in a study of 382 people with heartburn, 67% of participants experienced heartburn after consuming orange juice.
In another study of approximately 400 people with heartburn, 73% experienced heartburn after drinking orange or grapefruit juice. The findings suggested that the amount of acid in citrus juices may have been responsible for causing heartburn symptoms.
However, it’s not entirely clear how citrus juices can cause heartburn.
Citrus juices like orange or grapefruit juice may cause acid reflux and heartburn. However, it’s not entirely clear how this happens.
Chocolate is another common trigger for heartburn.
Like high-fat foods, chocolate can relax the lower esophageal sphincter.
This may allow stomach acid to escape into the esophagus and cause heartburn.
In addition, chocolate is made of cocoa, which contains the “happy hormone” serotonin.
Unfortunately, serotonin may relax the lower esophageal sphincter, as well.
Lastly, chocolate also contains the compounds theobromine and caffeine. Both can stimulate the lower esophageal sphincter to relax.
Chocolate may cause heartburn by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter. This may be due to its fat content, serotonin levels or other naturally occurring compounds.
5. Spicy Foods
Spicy foods are notorious for causing heartburn.
They often contain a compound called capsaicin, which may slow the rate of digestion. This means food will sit in the stomach longer, which is a risk factor for heartburn.
For example, one study showed that consuming chili that contained chili powder slowed the rate of digestion.
In addition, spicy foods may irritate an already inflamed esophagus, and this can worsen heartburn symptoms.
Therefore, it’s best to reduce your intake of spicy foods if you have heartburn.
The capsaicin in spicy foods may cause heartburn by slowing the rate of digestion. Spicy foods may also irritate your esophagus, further worsening heartburn symptoms.
Consuming table salt or salty foods may increase reflux, a risk factor for heartburn.
For instance, one study found that people who added table salt to their meals had a 70% higher risk of reflux than people who never added salt.
The same study also found that people who consumed salted foods at least three times a week had a 50% higher risk of reflux than people who never ate salted foods.
However, it’s not completely understood how salt intake might increase the risk of reflux.
It’s possible that people who consume salty foods also eat more fried and fatty foods.
In that case, those foods are a more likely trigger for heartburn than salt alone.
Consuming table salt and salty foods has been linked with heartburn. However, its influence on the condition is not fully understood.
Onions, especially raw onions, are a common trigger for heartburn.
Like other foods on this list, onions may relax the lower esophageal sphincter, which may cause acid reflux and symptoms of heartburn.
In one study, people with heartburn ate a plain hamburger on one day, followed by an identical hamburger with onions on another day. Eating the burger with onions significantly worsened heartburn symptoms, compared to eating the burger with no onions.
In addition, onions are a rich source of fermentable fiber, which may cause belching. Belching can aggravate acid reflux symptoms.
The fermentable fiber onions contain is made up of FODMAPs, a group of compounds that may trigger digestive issues.
Onions, especially raw onions, may cause acid reflux and heartburn symptoms by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter. In addition, onions are high in fermentable fiber, which may promote acid reflux symptoms.
Moderate to excessive alcohol intake can also cause heartburn symptoms.
Alcohol can do this in many ways. For example, it can relax the lower esophageal sphincter, which may allow stomach acid to escape into the esophagus and trigger heartburn.
In addition, alcoholic beverages, especially wine and beer, can increase your amount of stomach acid, which can increase the risk of heartburn.
Lastly, excessive alcohol intake may directly damage the lining of the esophagus. Over time, this can make the esophagus more sensitive to stomach acid.
Alcohol may cause heartburn in several ways. It may relax the lower esophageal sphincter, increase stomach acid or directly damage the lining of the esophagus.
Some people may experience heartburn when drinking coffee.
Coffee has been shown to relax the lower esophageal sphincter, which can increase the risk of acid reflux and heartburn.
Some studies suggest that caffeine is the culprit. However, other studies have looked at the effects of caffeine alone and discovered that it may not trigger reflux symptoms. If this is the case, then other compounds found in coffee may be responsible.
Nevertheless, other studies have found no link between coffee and reflux symptoms.
Though the research remains inconclusive, if you tolerate coffee, then there is no need to avoid it. Yet if coffee gives you reflux and heartburn, it is best to avoid it or limit your intake.
Some people may experience heartburn when drinking coffee, though the link between coffee intake and heartburn is not very clear. If coffee gives you heartburn, then it’s best to avoid it or reduce your intake.
10. Sodas and Carbonated Beverages
Sodas and carbonated beverages are also common culprits of heartburn.
Research suggests that these beverages may relax the esophageal sphincter and increase the acidity of stomach acid — two risk factors for heartburn.
In one study, scientists observed the sleeping patterns of more than 15,000 people, finding that approximately 25% experienced nighttime heartburn.
After further investigation, the researchers found that nighttime heartburn was strongly linked to several factors, including drinking carbonated soft drinks.
Another study found that people who consumed carbonated beverages had a 69% higher risk of developing reflux symptoms like heartburn.
Sodas and other carbonated beverages may cause heartburn by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter. If sodas or other carbonated beverages give you heartburn, consider cutting back or avoiding them completely.
People commonly consume milk to treat heartburn. However, drinking whole milk may actually cause symptoms, not relieve them.
In fact, research suggests that whole milk may increase stomach acid production, which is a risk factor for heartburn.
In one study of almost 400 people with heartburn, approximately 38% reported heartburn symptoms after drinking whole milk.
Researchers from the study suggested that the link between whole milk and heartburn was related to the fat content of whole milk.
If drinking milk gives you heartburn, it’s best to avoid it or reduce your intake.
Whole milk has been linked to heartburn, which may be due to its fat content. If whole milk gives you heartburn, it’s best to reduce your intake or avoid it.
Foods That May Help Relieve Heartburn
While many foods can make your heartburn worse, there are several foods that may help relieve symptoms.
Here are some foods that may help relieve heartburn:
- Ginger: This is a natural remedy for nausea and vomiting. While there is limited evidence about ginger’s effects on heartburn, it may help reduce reflux.
- Bananas and melons: These fruits are naturally low in acid and are often recommended to reduce reflux.
- Green veggies: Naturally low in fat, acid and sugar, green veggies include green beans, broccoli, spinach and celery.
- Oatmeal: Oatmeal is packed with fiber, which is linked to a lower risk of acid reflux. This fiber does not contain FODMAPs, so does not cause belching or reflux.
- Grains and potatoes: Research has found that consuming grains and potatoes is linked to a 42% lower risk of gastroesophageal reflux disease.
While many foods can make your heartburn symptoms worse, there are plenty of foods that may ease heartburn symptoms. These include ginger, bananas and melons, veggies, oatmeal, grains and potatoes.
The Bottom Line
Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux. It affects millions of Americans every month.
Many foods can cause heartburn by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter, a ring-like muscle that acts as a barrier between the esophagus and stomach.
If you experience heartburn frequently, try removing some of the foods in this list from your diet to see if your symptoms improve.
It’s a good idea to keep a food diary so you can track which foods give you heartburn.
You can also try adding foods to your diet that help relieves heartburn, such as bananas, melons, oatmeal, grains, potatoes, ginger and green veggies.