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What is acid reflux?

woman experiencing acid reflux on park bench

Acid reflux – also known as heartburn – is a common ailment that many people experience from time to time. For some people, acid reflux can be caused by something as simple as overindulging. Other people experience acid reflux flare-ups whenever they eat certain trigger foods, which may need to be removed from the diet altogether.

Although acid reflux is normal, it can be uncomfortable and embarrassing if it’s concurrent with symptoms like bloating or bad breath.1

In this article, we’ll explain the science behind acid reflux and reveal common triggers. We’ll advise on treatments for acid reflux, and how simple lifestyle changes can help prevent it.

What is acid reflux?

Acid reflux is caused by stomach acid travelling up the oesophagus (the throat) to generate a burning sensation in the chest and, occasionally, a sour taste in the mouth. If acid reflux consistently reoccurs, it’s considered GORD (gastro-oesophageal reflux disease).

Other symptoms of acid reflux include bad breath, hiccups, hoarse voice, nausea, and bloating.2

Causes of acid reflux

Many people experience heartburn irregularly, and an occasional episode is no cause for concern.

Some trigger foods contribute to the development of acid reflux, including:3,4

  • Fatty foods

High-fat foods cause lower oesophageal sphincter relaxation, which allows stomach acid to move up the oesophagus. Fatty foods also stay in the stomach for longer, potentially prolonging heartburn episodes.

Reduce your intake of deep-fried foods (like chips and onion rings), full-fat lactose products (like whole milk and cheese), and fatty meats (like ham or Sirlion steak).

  • Acidic fruits

Tomatoes, along with acidic fruits like grapefruit, limes, and pineapple, contribute to acid reflux developing.

  • Spicy foods

Warming, tangy, and flavoursome foods, like onions, garlic, and mustard, are known to exacerbate acid reflux in some people. Notice if you experience aggravated symptoms after enjoying spicy dishes.

  • Chocolate

Chocolate contains methylxanthine. This is a lower oesophageal sphincter relaxant, which encourages stomach acid to travel up the windpipe and cause heartburn. 

  • Caffeine

As warming and energising as a morning cup of coffee might be, caffeine is a known trigger for acid reflux. Observe if the coffee has this effect on you and try to reduce intake.

  • Mint

Mint, and even mint derivatives, like peppermint tea, are known to cause acid reflux in some people.

How to treat acid reflux

Most episodes of acid reflux can be treated at home with an over-the-counter antiacid tablet, sold in pharmacies. Take antiacids during or immediately after eating to see the best results.

Visit your GP if your acid reflux is persistent, regular, and antiacids don’t help relieve symptoms.

How to prevent acid reflux

Help stop acid reflux before it starts, by:5

  • consuming smaller meal portions, but eating more often
  • sleeping with your head elevated above your feet, to discourage stomach acid moving upwards
  • starting a diet or exercise plan to reduce BMI, if you’re overweight
  • avoiding trigger foods to protect digestive health
  • quitting smoking
  • practising relaxation techniques, like self-massage or yoga

Last updated: 12 April 2021

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