9 lifestyle tips to help control your GERD symptoms

The holidays are here and so are all the get-togethers, parties and delicious meals. If you suffer from heartburn, then you know indulging in holiday fatty foods and alcohol can be a trigger, even if you take over-the-counter medications for temporary relief. However, if you notice that you are experiencing indigestion-like symptoms more than twice a week, you might have something more serious.

Heartburn is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. GERD is a digestive disorder that affects up to one in five U.S. adults. It happens when the muscle in the esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) opens or relaxes too often or for too long. This causes stomach contents to back up into the food pipe, causing heartburn and acid indigestion.

Other symptoms of GERD include shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, chest pain, chronic cough, sore throat, hoarseness and bad breath. Although there isn’t a specific cure for the disease, you can make some lifestyle and diet changes to help you manage your symptoms:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight. The risk and severity of GERD tend to intensify for those who have higher body weights. Losing a few pounds could make you feel better.
  2. Avoid tight-fitting clothing. Tight clothes could exert pressure on the stomach, causing stomach acid to move up towards the esophagus and resulting in acid reflux. Try wearing looser clothes that don’t compress the stomach area.
  3. Avoid trigger foods and drinks. These include fatty or fried foods, tomato sauce, alcohol, chocolate, garlic, onion and caffeine.
  4. Eat smaller meals and slow down. Smaller meals can help you reduce pressure in your stomach while eating slowly can help you identify when you’re full more quickly. By slowing down, you’re also less likely to irritate your esophagus.
  5. Wait at least three hours after eating before lying down or going to bed. Staying up a few hours before going to bed will reduce your risk of reflux.
  6. Elevate the head of your bed. This will reduce the contact of the lining of the food tube with acidic contents and help you get a good night’s sleep.
  7. Quit smoking. Do not smoke or chew tobacco.
  8. Choose water over soda. Carbonation bubbles can expand in the stomach, causing increased pressure that contributes to reflux.
  9. Avoid creamed or cheesy foods and soups. All high-fat foods can cause reflux, so skipping the dairy items can help.

If untreated, GERD can lead to more serious health problems over time, including esophageal cancer. It’s important that you talk to your primary care doctor about your symptoms and find a solution that works best for you. There is not yet a cure for the disease but with lifestyle modifications and/or medications, you can manage your symptoms to improve your quality of life.

If lifestyle changes and medication don’t help manage your GERD symptoms, your doctor may refer you to a surgeon. Surgery may also be a reasonable alternative to a lifetime of drugs and discomfort.

Adrian Park, MD, is chair of Anne Arundel Medical Center’s Department of Surgery and an internationally recognized specialist in minimally invasive surgery. To schedule an appointment with him, call 443-481-6699.

Originally published Nov. 26, 2018. Last updated Nov. 14, 2019.