Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a mouthful to say, and you probably know a friend or family member that suffers from it. In fact, it’s estimated that 20% of Americans report GERD symptoms on a weekly basis. GERD is a condition that affects the esophagus and stomach, and usually presents with chronic acid reflux. If you’ve ever experienced a burning sensation behind your breastbone after eating a large meal, then you likely had acid reflux. Acid reflux occurs when stomach contents pass through the lower esophageal sphincter into the esophagus.
Occasional heartburn isn’t a concern, but chronic exposure to stomach acid can erode the lining of the esophagus. Long-term inflammation along the esophageal wall (i.e. esophagitis) can lead to conditions like atrophy, Barrett’s esophagus, or ulcers, so make sure you get your GERD under control with some of the suggestions below.
Do I Have GERD?
Chronic repeated episodes of heartburn or reflux can lead to GERD, and GERD can also present with other symptoms as well. If you have chronic heart burn or regurgitation and some of the symptoms below, you might have GERD.
- Difficulty swallowing
- Sensation of something stuck in the throat
- Chronic cough and/or difficulty breathing
- Laryngitis (loss of voice)
- Halitosis (bad breath)
- Bitter or sour taste in mouth
Foods to Eat When You Have GERD
Fortunately, when treating GERD, there are many natural medicine remedies available. I always like to start with diet. Most people receive some benefit from eliminating certain foods that cause irritation and including foods that help heal an inflamed esophagus. If you have GERD, I highly suggest eating mainly “whole foods” and removing processed sugary foods as these can lead to increased inflammation.
1. Most Vegetables
The key word here is “most.” Vegetables are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which all support the integrity of the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. But there are some vegetables, like peppers, garlic, and onions, that can exacerbate GERD symptoms (see “Foods to Avoid” section below for more information).
2. Most Fruits
Just like vegetables, fruits are packed with nutrients and fiber, which help support optimal function of the GI tract. The fruits you’ll want to eat more of are bananas, melon, apples, and pears. You will want to avoid the more acidic fruits like tomatoes, pineapple, grapefruits, or oranges.
This yellow spice is used around the world particularly in countries like India where curries are regularly eaten. Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties, and thus helps soothe the lining of the esophagus and stomach.
Ginger is another potent anti-inflammatory food that can help reduce the symptoms associated with heartburn and GERD. Drink it as a tea, add finely chopped to food dishes, or add a small amount to a juicer and combine with lots of fresh greens and fruits.
5. Fermented Foods
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, beet kvass, miso, apple cider vinegar (unpasteurized), and pickled vegetables are loaded with probiotics like Lactobacilli species when prepared with traditional fermentation practices. The esophagus has a mini microbiome just like the colon and also benefits from probiotics.
Okra, a vegetable that is used in many US southern dishes, contains mucilaginous compounds that help support the mucous lining of the GI tract. When I was a young child, my mom would prepare okra dishes and they tasted amazing! These days, it’s hard to find okra in any food dishes except when we order Indian food or southern cuisine.
Oatmeal can be prepared as an excellent breakfast for those suffering from GERD. It’s a whole grain food and is high in fiber.
Foods to Avoid If You Have GERD
1. Fried and Fatty Foods
You’ve probably overeaten at a fast food restaurant and paid the price afterward with intractable heartburn. Fatty and fried foods can cause the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a bundle of muscles that separates the stomach from the esophagus, to relax. A relaxed LES may allow more stomach acid to move from the stomach into the esophagus causing heartburn-like symptoms. Fatty foods also take longer to digest.
This member of the nightshade family seems to cause heartburn for some folks, but not all. We really don’t know why bell peppers cause heartburn as bell peppers are actually more alkaline than acidic.
Another member of the nightshade family, this fruit is acidic and can trigger GERD symptoms. Sometimes, folks who have GERD can eat raw but not cooked tomatoes (particularly tomato sauce). Other times, the reverse is true and raw tomatoes cause heartburn, but not cooked tomatoes.
Just like fried and fatty foods, the compounds in chocolate can cause the LES to relax. When the LES is relaxed, stomach contents can more easily pass through into the lower esophagus causing heartburn.
Some spices like cayenne, chili, mustard, cinnamon, or pepper can be problematic for some people. These foods are very “warming” energetically and can exacerbate GERD-like symptoms.
It’s ironic that this herb is amazing for cooling and calming down the body, but it can be aggravating for those prone to GERD. It is thought that peppermint causes the LES to relax, which can predispose you to increased reflux.
This pick-me-up beverage consumed regularly by millions of Americans and people around the world is notorious for causing heartburn. Coffee inherently is acidic, and caffeine can cause relaxation of the LES. This combo is a knockout punch for those suffering with GERD. Some people report that adding in milk, or drinking during or after a meal, can lessen the impact of heartburn.
Other Natural GERD Treatments
If making dietary changes does not improve the GERD symptoms after 2 weeks, here are some other suggestions I offer to my patients:
- As with any chronic digestion condition, it’s important to pause before you eat, calm the nerves, and be present with your food. Chronic stress plays a major role in GERD and eating while you’re stressed is a bad idea.
- Thoroughly chew your food as doing so will not only mechanically break down the food, but also will stimulate enzymes to be released from your salivary glands to begin the chemical breakdown of food.
- If you have GERD symptoms at night, try elevating the head of your bed by 6 inches.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing to take pressure off the abdominal region. For example, belts can be constrictive and lead to increased pressure in the digestive tract.
- Nutraceuticals can be incredibly helpful for managing GERD symptoms. A few examples are:
- Digestive enzymes
- DGL licorice chewables
- Gamma oryzanol
- D limonene
- Slippery elm
- Marshmallow root