Acid Reflux Triggers: How to Avoid Those Things That Bring on the Burn

by Jennifer Mitchell Wilson B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional

The question I get more than any other involves people wanting to know what might be triggering their acid reflux flare ups. There are several different ways in which acid reflux can be triggered. In this blog we will discuss both food and lifestyle issues that may contribute to the burn.

There is no set list of foods that cause reflux consistently for all sufferers. You may find that there are foods that trigger your problems that are not on this list or that some of the foods listed do not bother you at all. It may be helpful to write out a food journal that includes what you have eaten and any subsequent symptoms. This can help determine your main triggers.

The foods listed below are very common triggers for most people with acid reflux and provide a good place to start:

  • Tomato or tomato products (e.g., ketchup)

  • Citrus fruits or juices

  • Caffeine

  • Black pepper

  • Spicy foods

  • Rich or high fat foods

  • Chocolate

  • Peppermint

  • Fatty dairy products

  • Cream sauces

At our house the three common triggers that are our biggest issues are: citrus fruits (or juice), tomato products, and chocolate. Sounds like a short list but when you consider how many meals or desserts contain one of these ingredients it can be hard to avoid them. Plan ahead and bring snacks or eat before attending functions that may not be reflux friendly.

Lifestyle can also play a large role in triggering acid reflux. Here are a few of the lifestyle issues you may need to address if your acid reflux is flaring.

  • Obesity

  • Smoking

  • Alcohol consumption

  • Wearing tight clothing

  • Eating large meals

  • Laying down too soon after eating

  • Exercising or bending too soon after a meal

  • Forgetting medications

The obesity epidemic is linked to the increase in adult acid reflux in the United States. If you have extra weight, especially around the midsection, you may find relief from loosing some of the extra pounds. Sticking to lower fat foods and having a healthy eating plan can help shed pounds and prevent triggering your reflux.

Medication compliance is a huge issue. Many patients try to limit taking their medications due to the cost or sometimes they simply forget to take them. Many of these acid reflux medications work best when taken consistently. Please take your medicines the way your doctor has prescribed them. If you are taking OTC medications discuss with your pharmacist the best way to take them. Should you find yourself taking OTC medications more than indicated you may need to discuss your acid reflux symptoms with your physician. They can rule out other conditions that may be causing your symptoms or prescribe a medication that will work better for your flare ups.

I have also found over the years additional triggers that my own children have dealt with. Those include but are not limited to:

  • Teething

  • Food Allergies

  • Illnesses that cause sinus drainage

  • Constipation

Constipation is an embarrassing issue that patients sometimes do not feel comfortable discussing with their physician. While it may seem like "nothing" the issue of constipation can play a large role in triggering acid reflux. The extra pressure placed on the LES in people who are constipated can trigger reflux episodes. My daughter deals with this issue quite frequently. Due to her "lazy GI tract" she is frequently constipated and had been prescribed Miralax by her GI to avoid becoming backed up. Dealing appropriately with her constipation has helped her reflux dramatically.

There are also other medical conditions that can cause heartburn symptoms. Those can include:

  • Immature GI tract (infants)

  • Gastroparesis or Delayed Gastric Emptying

  • Hernia

  • Gallbladder disease

  • Certian medications

Everyone is different and this list is definitely not an exhaustive one. If your acid reflux is not being properly controlled by your current treatment plan discuss the issue with your physician. Untreated or improperly treated acid reflux can cause serious and painful problems later. Write your questions and issues down and have a thorough discussion with your physician or request a referral to a GI. Hopefully with proper treatment you can put out the burn for good

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer Mitchell Wilson

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson is a dietitian and mother of three girls. Two of her children have dealt with acid reflux disease, food allergies, migraines, and asthma. She has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Harding University and has done graduate work in public health and nutrition through Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she does patient consults and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association.