Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
What Is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a condition in which stomach acid and partially digested food travel up from the stomach into the esophagus instead of traveling down into the small intestine. The acid reflux (movement of acid in the wrong direction) causes heartburn, which is a burning sensation in the chest. Acid reflux isn't always classified as GERD, but if it occurs frequently, it may be. Frequent episodes of acid in the esophagus must be treated in order to prevent potentially dangerous health problems from developing.
I've never been diagnosed with GERD, but I've experienced episodes of acid reflux and heartburn for a number of years. In my case, the condition is linked to a dietary factor. If I avoid wheat, I don't suffer from reflux. If I'm silly and eat food containing wheat—which I do at times—I have to suffer the consequences or eat the chewable calcium carbonate tablets that are sold as antacids. Repeatedly taking medicines for a situation that I could avoid is not a good idea. For me, and perhaps for some other acid reflux sufferers, the best solution for the problem is a dietary one. A doctor should be consulted if the condition is severe or if major changes are needed in the diet.
In the United Kingdom, esophagus is spelled oesophagus and GERD is therefore referred to as GORD. Despite the different spelling and names, the disorders are identical.
The Lower Esophageal or Cardiac Sphincter
GERD is caused by the faulty behavior of a circular muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES. The muscle is also known as the cardiac sphincter. It's found at the end of the esophagus where the stomach begins.
Normally, when food leaves the esophagus and enters the stomach, the LES contracts and closes the stomach entrance. This action prevents food from going the wrong way. In people with gastroesophageal reflux disease, the LES doesn't do its job. This allows acid and stomach contents to travel backward (or "reflux") into the esophagus.
Once gastroesophageal reflux disease appears, it's often a lifelong condition. Medications that can relieve the symptoms exist, but a change in diet can also be very helpful in treating the disorder. Even if medications can't be avoided, dietary changes may reduce the amount of medication that's required and greatly improve symptoms.
A small amount of reflux from the stomach is normal and may not cause symptoms. When people say that they have "acid reflux," they generally mean that the effects are noticeable. The information in this article is intended for general interest. If you have questions or concerns about your condition or the health of someone that you care for, you should visit a doctor.
Acid Reflux, Heartburn, and GERD Facts
The terms acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD are related to each other but don't mean exactly the same thing.
"Acid reflux" means that a significant amount of stomach acid is regurgitated and enters the esophagus. This can occur due to a temporary alteration in the behavior of the lower esophageal sphincter. The sphincter may be pushed open by a very full stomach, for example—especially when a person is lying down or leaning over—or by excess fat in the abdomen. Tight-fitting clothes may also trigger acid reflux, and so can exercises that increase abdominal pressure. In sensitive people, certain foods or drinks can relax the LES and allow stomach contents to enter the esophagus, especially when they are ingested in large quantities. Acid reflux is occasionally known as gastroesophageal reflux.
Acid reflux often causes heartburn, which is a burning sensation in the chest. The heartburn may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as a sour taste and a burning sensation in the mouth. A person may also experience a cough, a sore throat, and hoarseness. Acid reflux may trigger an asthma attack in asthmatics.
Many people experience acid reflux and heartburn occasionally. If there is a long-term problem with the behavior of the lower esophageal sphincter, however, acid reflux and heartburn may occur regularly and be prolonged or severe. This disorder may be diagnosed as gastroesophageal reflux disease. A GERD sufferer may experience heartburn at least twice a week, or even every day. In some people, the discomfort is almost constant. GERD is also known as acid reflux disease. It's very important that anyone with more than very occasional heartburn visits their doctor. If you have GERD, you need to know about it and treat it, with your doctor's guidance.
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Heartburn may be a symptom of a heart attack. If you have a severe case of heartburn or one that seems different from normal, or if the heartburn is accompanied by unusual symptoms, you should visit a doctor immediately. Other disorders can cause heartburn as well, including a gallbladder attack.
Individual Variation in Food Sensitivity
When you read the suggestions given in this article for foods to avoid and foods to include in an anti-GERD diet, remember that while the recommendations are helpful for many people they may need to be fine-tuned for your particular case of the disorder. Different patients often need slightly different diets.
My body's response to wheat is an example of an individual food sensitivity. Wheat isn't listed as a food to avoid in most anti-GERD diets, but eating more than a very small amount of the grain gives me heartburn. On the other hand, people sometimes discover that a common food trigger for GERD doesn't make them uncomfortable. This is good news (as long as the food is healthy) because it means that the food can be included in the diet.
The Importance of Keeping a Food Diary
A good way to find your ideal diet that gives you no GERD symptoms or at least reduces them is to keep a food diary for at least a week. Record everything that you eat and drink for each meal and note if the meal causes heartburn. If it does, you will need to eat or drink each component of the meal separately and at widely spaced intervals to determine which item is causing the heartburn.
An alternative plan is to avoid all the potentially unsafe foods for GERD sufferers, and then—assuming that none of the "safe" foods cause heartburn—add the "dangerous" foods one at a time to see if a food is a trigger for acid reflux. If it isn't, then you know that you have found one more food that you can add to your diet and that you don't need to avoid. It would be a great shame to avoid healthy and flavorful foods such as tomatoes and citrus fruits if this isn't necessary.
Benefits and Disadvantages of Food Testing
The food testing process takes time. In addition, the consequence of testing the "wrong" food is an unpleasant bout of heartburn and its accompanying symptoms. These are some disadvantages of testing foods to discovery sensitivities. The advantages of creating your own diet instead of following recommended GERD diets exactly are that you end up with the widest possible variety of foods in your diet and that all the food that you eat is safe for you. It's often worth making the effort to test food, since GERD may be a lifelong disorder.
Keeping a food diary and performing food tests are useful for many people. If your GERD is severe, however, adding a potentially irritating food to your diet and performing food tests aren't advisable. In this case, it's important to reduce the pain and acid flow as soon as possible, by medication, by avoiding common food triggers, or by whatever strategies your doctor suggests.
It's important that GERD is treated. Repeatedly bathing the lining of the esophagus in acid may cause inflammation. This inflammation may cause structural changes in the esophageal lining and result in a condition known as Barrett's esophagus. This condition is believed to be a risk factor for esophageal cancer.
Foods That May Cause GERD Symptoms
According to most researchers, the following foods have a high probability of triggering heartburn, especially in a person with GERD. Even if the disorder hasn't been diagnosed, avoiding these foods or limiting their quantity may help to prevent discomfort.
- chocolate and cocoa
- peppermint and spearmint
- tomatoes and tomato products
- foods that are high in fat
- fried foods
- coffee (caffeinated or decaffeinated)
- citrus fruits and juices (Citrus fruits include oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, and related fruits.)
- carbonated beverages
- onion and garlic
Spices are frequently listed as foods to avoid on an anti-GERD diet, but some researchers now say that although spices may irritate the stomach, they don't affect the lower esophageal sphincter and so don't contribute to GERD. Try spices in small quantities if you want to test them. Foods that irritate the stomach or increase acidity in the stomach may not affect the LES, but they may make acid reflux more painful.
If you want to drink tea, try it with caution. Some people say that tea has no effect on their acid reflux or even makes it better, while others say that tea makes their condition worse.
If you find that you repeatedly need to treat your heartburn with an over-the-counter drugstore medication, it's time to visit a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment recommendations.
Foods That Are Usually Safe for a GERD Diet
There are many foods that are generally considered to be safe for a GERD diet. The foods should be cooked without fat or eaten raw.
- Vegetables, except for tomatoes and tomato products
- Legumes or pulses (beans, peas, and lentils)
- Fruits, except for citrus fruits (Try apples, pears, bananas, peaches, apricots, melons, and berries)
- Grains (whole grains are best for weight control and for health)
- Low-fat dairy products
- Lean poultry and meats
- Herbs, except for mint
- Non-citrus fruit juices, such as apple juice and grape juice
- Herbal teas that don't contain mint leaves, such as rooibos tea
- Coffee substitutes made from grains
- Low-fat and non-spicy extras, such as salad dressings, jam, and jelly
A GERD diet can be very healthy. Salt, sugar, and other sweeteners are safe for most acid reflux sufferers, but it's not a good idea to include too much of these substances in the diet since they can cause other health problems. I find that granules of seaweeds such as kelp or dulse are a good substitute for salt.
Celiac Disease and Heartburn
Heartburn may indicate the presence of certain diseases rather than just a LES problem. For example, it's one of the symptoms of celiac disease. In this condition, the lining of the small intestine and the villi on its surface are damaged. Villi are tiny projections of the intestinal lining that increase the surface area for the absorption of food. Without villi, it's very hard for a person to obtain enough nutrients from their food.
Celiac disease results from an intolerance to gluten. Gluten is a protein complex found in wheat, rye, barley, and related grains. People with celiac disease must permanently avoid gluten in order for new villi to appear. The disease can have serious consequences if it's not treated.
If your food diary shows that you get heartburn after eating a grain containing gluten, it would be a good idea to get tested for the presence of celiac disease. I've been tested for the disease and have discovered that I don't have the disorder.
It's important that you know whether or not you have celiac disease if you find a grain problematic. You can then either avoid gluten if necessary or eat the gluten-containing grains that cause you no problem. Whole grains are very nutritious. A specific grain shouldn't be eliminated from the diet unless this is essential.
Lifestyle Changes That May Help GERD
In addition to avoiding foods and drinks that make symptoms worse, the following lifestyle changes may be helpful in treating GERD.
- Avoid large meals. Eat multiple small meals during the day instead.
- Don't eat within two to three hours of going to bed or lying down.
- Raise the head of your bed by about six to eight inches by placing wooden blocks under the bed posts.
- Wear loose-fitting clothes.
- Lose weight if necessary.
- Don't smoke.
Although GERD is a very unpleasant condition, there are many treatments that can help prevent the symptoms. A combination of medications, dietary changes, and a lifestyle change should relieve the discomfort of many cases of the disorder. In relatively mild cases, dietary changes may be sufficient to prevent noticeable acid reflux and medications may not be needed, though a doctor must confirm this idea with respect to a particular patient. In severe cases, a doctor will almost certainly be able to suggest other treatment options.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease from the National Institutes of Health in the United States
- Heartburn and acid reflux facts from the National Health Service in the UK
- Barrett's esophagus information from the Mayo Clinic
- Celiac disease facts from WebMD
- Gastroesophageal reflux symptoms in people with celiac disease from the US National Library of Medicine
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is there a Barrett's esophagus diet?
Answer: This is something that you should ask your doctor. Barrett’s esophagus is a major complication of GERD. Anyone with this condition must be under a doctor’s care. It’s certainly important to avoid personal heartburn triggers in the diet, but a patient mustn’t attempt to deal with the condition without a doctor’s examination, advice, and prescribed treatment.
© 2012 Linda Crampton
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 04, 2019:
I’m sorry to hear that you need to fight the discomfort, Peg. I hope your situation improves. Thanks for the comment.
Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on January 04, 2019:
Very thorough description of this condition and ways to reduce or eliminate many of the triggers. I'll try the apples and pears to replace some of the citrus fruit.Thank you.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 22, 2017:
I'm sorry about your symptoms, Patricia. You should visit a doctor for help.
Patricia on October 22, 2017:
i have been coughing a lot until I throw up clear fluid. I am experiencing a salty constant drip of fluid down my throat. it drains all the time.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 21, 2016:
Hi, Joan. That's an interesting question. You should ask your doctor about this the next time that you visit him or her. I can't advise people about their specific problems because I'm a science writer, not a physician. I hope you find help for your condition.
Joan on August 21, 2016:
I was diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus. Can eating barley, or drinking barley water help? Thank you for your time
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 29, 2016:
Hi, Tina. I'm sorry that you have such bad GERD. I hope the surgery is helpful for you. It sounds like a good strategy to try in your case. Best wishes to you.
Tina Zimmer on March 29, 2016:
I found this to be very helpful, i have suffered with GERD for a good part of my life , i am no in the process of getting the surgery scheduled to be performed on me. im scared but to tell the truth im more scared of dying in my sleep because at this point in my journey, i have begun to puke up in my my sleep the GERD is so bad, and my doctor after all these years on so many different types of meds is now worried i just may drown in my sleep after i showed him a picture that was taken after a bout of it, so here i go on a different road with this i pray it helps i can not take this any longer, thank you for all this information it is very helpful and i have wrote down everything i found useful for myself personally, thanks again ,
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 25, 2015:
Hi, Aelbarsha. Thanks for the comment and for sharing the information. Improving eating habits seems to improve acid reflux symptoms in many cases, as you say. Sometimes additional help is necessary to manage the disorder, but improving the diet (if this is necessary) is always a good idea!
Abdelhakim Elbarsha from Benghazi/Libya on November 25, 2015:
Thanks for the great article. I liked it!
Manipulating food may be as effective as other measures in relieving heartburn caused by acid reflux. It's actually the bad eating habits (quality and quantity), which make acid reflux worse or it brings it up. Adopting healthy eating habits, is a kind of "restoring" to the normal way of eating, and acid reflux should then vanish, or at least get improved.
Linda Crampton (author