You can feel heartburn, or acid reflux, coming from a mile away—that fierce and persistent burning sensation creeping up your throat. But what exactly causes this fiery phenomenon? "Acid reflux happens when the esophageal sphincter valve does not completely close or reopens after food passes through it to your stomach," says Niket Sonpal, MD, a gastroenterologist in New York City. The opening of the valve causes the acid within your stomach to move up to your esophagus, causing heartburn, chest pain, or acid indigestion.
It's pretty common, too. Acid reflux occurs in about 20% to 30% of the population, says Sonpal. Luckily, there are ways to prevent it—namely, avoiding reflux-inducing foods.
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"Certain foods increase your chance of getting acid reflux," says Sonpal. "This is due to the fact that some foods relax the lower esophageal sphincter, which prevents the valve from fully tightening."
Generally, the foods that increase your risk of acid reflux are high in fat, increase saliva, and are highly acidic. Here are some specific foods to avoid.
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High-fat foods, including "healthy" choices like avocado, cause acid reflux because they stimulate a hormone that relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter.
Chocolate is a triple threat. It can be high in fat and caffeine. Plus it contains cocoa, another ingredient known to relax the lower esophageal sphincter.
Alcohol (yep, that includes wine) not only relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter but can also increase the amount of stomach acid in your body. Might we suggests one of the many popular alcohol alternatives out there?
Unfortunately, though, avoidance doesn't always provide adequate relief, especially in people who are more prone to acid reflux, says Sonpal.
In these instances, there are medications—and in extreme cases, surgeries—that help neutralize the acid in your stomach. Your doctor may initially prescribe antacids, says Sonpal. And if those do not work, they may give you foaming agents that coat your stomach or prokinetics that strengthen your lower esophageal sphincter, he explains. As a last resort, your doctor may place a metal ring, known as a Linx device, at the bottom of the esophagus or wrap the upper part of your stomach during surgery.
If you have extreme acid reflux, it's best to consult your doctor. Treatment varies per person, and persistent acid reflux can cause long-term health problems. "Stomach acid is very irritating to the lining of the stomach and esophagus," says Sonpal. "If left untreated, you may develop gastroesophageal reflux disease, a disease that can lead to long-term damage to the throat or, in extreme cases, cancer."
This story was published at an earlier date and has been recently updated.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be used in the place of advice of your physician or other medical professionals. You should always consult with your doctor or healthcare provider first with any health-related questions. See our full health disclaimer here.