Heartburn is an uncomfortable symptom that’s quite common.
People often describe it as a painful, burning sensation in the lower chest area that radiates toward the mouth. Some people with heartburn also describe having a sour taste in their mouth.
If you frequently experience heartburn, you may notice that certain foods can bring it on or worsen it.
This article lists nine foods that may cause heartburn. It also explores methods you can use to reduce heartburn symptoms.
What is heartburn?
Heartburn is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a gastrointestinal disorder that affects up to 27.8% of U.S. adults.
GERD develops when contents of the stomach flow back into the esophagus, causing symptoms like:
- chest pain
- a sour taste in the mouth from regurgitation
Usually, stomach acid doesn’t reach the esophagus because of a barrier between the esophagus and stomach called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This ring-like muscle naturally stays closed and typically only opens when you swallow or burp.
Impairment and relaxation of the LES is just one possible cause of GERD.
Other factors that may increase the risk of developing GERD include:
- delayed stomach emptying
- hiatal hernia
- being over the age of 50
- drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
- being pregnant
- having a musculoskeletal disorder
- taking certain medications, such as benzodiazepines, NSAIDs, or antidepressants
Treatment of GERD involves managing associated symptoms, including heartburn. Lifestyle modifications are considered the most critical part of GERD treatment, though people use other treatments, such as medications.
The American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) doesn’t currently recommend that people with GERD eliminate certain foods from their diet.
However, many healthcare professionals recommend that people with GERD and heartburn symptoms avoid consuming certain things.
If you have heartburn, you may find that avoiding certain foods helps control your symptoms.
Here are nine foods that may cause heartburn.
1. High-fat foods
High-fat foods may cause heartburn, especially greasy foods like fries and pizza.
Researchers are still learning about how fat may cause GERD symptoms. Still, high-fat foods may worsen heartburn by stimulating your body to release substances that lead your esophagus to become irritated.
These include bile salts, which are present in the stomach, and the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) in your bloodstream, which may relax the LES and lead to acid reflux.
One study on people with GERD found that more than half of the 85 people who reported food triggers also reported that high-fat fried foods caused their GERD symptoms like heartburn.
Plus, the study reported that after participants removed triggering foods for two weeks, the reported heartburn percentage dropped from 93% to 44%.
It’s important to note that researchers are still trying to find out which types of fat may aggravate GERD symptoms, but fried and greasy foods seem to have the most substantial effects.
Summary: Certain high-fat foods, such as fried foods, may cause heartburn by stimulating the release of esophageal irritants like bile salts. They may also stimulate the secretion of the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK), which relaxes the LES.
Species of mint, like peppermint and spearmint, are often thought to soothe digestive conditions. However, there is some evidence that these types of mint may cause heartburn.
Studies suggest that peppermint decreases LES pressure and may cause heartburn.
Although mint could trigger GERD symptoms, it only seems to be an issue for a small proportion of people with GERD.
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If you experience heartburn after consuming mint products, you may want to eliminate them from your diet to see whether it helps you manage your heartburn.
Summary: Types of mint, including peppermint and spearmint, may cause heartburn in some people. If you experience heartburn after consuming mint, it’s best to avoid it.
3. Citrus juices
Drinking citrus juices may trigger heartburn symptoms.
People commonly report that orange and grapefruit juices cause GERD symptoms like heartburn.
However, it’s not entirely clear how citrus juices cause heartburn.
Nonetheless, many people with GERD avoid them to reduce heartburn symptoms.
Summary: Many people with GERD find that citrus juices, including orange or grapefruit juice, cause acid reflux, and heartburn. However, it’s not entirely clear how this happens.
Chocolate is another common trigger for heartburn.
Ingredients in chocolate like cacao and caffeine can relax the LES and increase esophageal exposure to acid.
Many people report heartburn symptoms after consuming chocolate, and studies have shown that chocolate can reduce LES pressure. However, it’s unclear whether eliminating chocolate from the diet improves heartburn symptoms.
If you find that eating chocolate gives you heartburn or worsens heartburn symptoms, try cutting it out of your diet.
Summary: Chocolate may cause heartburn by relaxing the LES. It’s unclear whether cutting out chocolate benefits all people with heartburn, but it may reduce symptoms in some people.
5. Spicy foods
Spicy foods are notorious for causing heartburn. Yet, exactly how they contribute to heartburn is unclear.
However, one study including people with GERD found that chili capsules increased gastric accommodation, which is when the upper part of the stomach relaxes in response to eating a meal.
Research has found that people with GERD tend to have an enhanced gastric accommodation reflex. This is associated with an increased relaxation of the LES, which may cause heartburn.
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The same study found that the chili capsules were associated with more severe sensations of burning in the belly and more severe heartburn in the participants with GERD, compared with a placebo treatment.
Another study, including 4,633 Iranian adults, found that high consumption of spicy foods was associated with a greater risk of heartburn in men but not women.
In addition, spicy foods may irritate an already inflamed esophagus, and this may worsen heartburn symptoms.
If you think spicy foods may be causing your heartburn, consider eliminating them from your diet.
Summary: Spicy foods may cause heartburn and irritate your esophagus, further worsening your symptoms.
Onions, especially raw onions, are a common trigger for heartburn.
Like other foods on this list, onions cause heartburn symptoms in many people with GERD. However, it’s unclear how onions cause heartburn or make it worse.
In one study from the 1990s, people with heartburn ate a plain hamburger on one day, followed by an identical hamburger with onions on another day. Eating the onion burger significantly worsened heartburn symptoms compared with eating the no-onion burger.
However, future studies are needed to determine whether all people with heartburn should consider eliminating or reducing their intake of onions.
In addition, onions are a rich source of FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols), a class of small nondigestible carbs that cause digestive issues in some people. These may cause heartburn in people who are sensitive to FODMAPs.
Summary: Onions, especially raw onions, are a common heartburn trigger.
Moderate to excessive alcohol intake may worsen GERD symptoms, including heartburn.
That’s because alcohol relaxes the LES, which may allow stomach acid to escape into the esophagus and trigger heartburn.
Furthermore, studies show that alcohol consumption is a risk factor for GERD.
One review of 29 studies found that people who drank alcohol more than 5 times or days per week were more than twice as likely to have GERD than people who didn’t drink or rarely drank alcohol.
Summary: Alcohol is a common trigger for GERD symptoms like heartburn, and excessive alcohol consumption is considered a risk factor for GERD.
8. Coffee and caffeinated beverages
Some people may experience heartburn when drinking coffee and other caffeinated beverages.
This is because caffeine has been shown to relax the lower esophageal sphincter, increasing the risk of acid reflux and heartburn.
Plus, coffee may stimulate gastric acid secretion, which may exacerbate heartburn.
Even though coffee may cause heartburn in some people, not all studies have observed a link between coffee and acid reflux symptoms.
One study that included 1,837 people, 25% of whom had GERD, did not find a significant link between coffee consumption and GERD symptoms.
Though the research remains inconclusive, if you tolerate coffee, there’s no need to avoid it. On the other hand, if coffee gives you reflux and heartburn, it’s best to avoid it or limit your intake.
Summary: Some people may experience heartburn when drinking coffee, though the link between coffee intake and heartburn is unclear. If coffee gives you heartburn, it’s best to avoid it or reduce your intake.
9. Sodas and carbonated beverages
Many people find they get heartburn after drinking sodas and carbonated beverages.
Research suggests that these drinks may relax the esophageal sphincter and increase the acidity of stomach acid — two risk factors for heartburn.
Soft drink consumption is considered a significant contributor to heartburn at night, known as nocturnal heartburn.
Some studies have found a link between drinking soft drinks and worsened symptoms in people with GERD.
For example, an older study found that people who consumed carbonated beverages had a 69% higher risk of developing reflux symptoms like heartburn.
If you experience heartburn after drinking soda or other carbonated beverages, limiting your intake or cutting out carbonated drinks entirely is best.
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Summary: 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 altogether.
Other ways to relieve heartburn
In addition to removing foods from your diet that may cause heartburn, there are other ways to tame heartburn.
- Maintain healthy body weight. Obesity is associated with GERD. Losing weight and maintaining a healthy body weight may decrease GERD symptoms like heartburn.
- Try a lower-carb diet. Some studies show that following a lower-carb diet may help reduce symptoms of GERD. Simply reducing your intake of refined carbs and added sugars may also help.
- Avoid lying down after meals. Healthcare professionals often recommend that those with GERD eat at least 3 hours before bedtime. Lying down soon after eating may worsen GERD symptoms like heartburn.
- Follow a Mediterranean-style diet. A Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fibrous foods like beans and vegetables and healthy fats like olive oil and fish, may help manage GERD symptoms.
- Increase physical activity. One review found that exercising for 30 minutes 3 times a week was associated with a reduced risk of GERD.
- Elevate your head in bed. Elevating your upper body while in bed may help reduce symptoms of GERD and improve your sleep patterns.
There are many other ways to improve and manage symptoms of GERD.
If you have heartburn, developing a treatment plan with a healthcare professional is best.
Summary: You can use many other methods to manage GERD symptoms. A healthcare professional can help develop a treatment plan that works best for you.
Heartburn is the most common symptom related to GERD. It affects millions of people around the world.
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.
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If you experience heartburn frequently, try removing some of the foods in this list from your diet to see whether your symptoms improve.
It’s a good idea to keep a food diary to track which foods give you heartburn.
Even though removing certain foods may help control heartburn, it’s best to work with your healthcare team to develop a comprehensive treatment plan to manage your GERD symptoms.