You’ve just eaten a delicious meal and sit down to relax when you begin to feel it—the creeping burn rising through your chest. Heartburn is going to disrupt your day, and you might feel helpless when it comes to keeping it under control and eager to find a quick and effective home remedy.
“The first time I had heartburn, I honest to goodness thought that I was having a heart attack,” an aunt told me when I started experiencing the condition during pregnancy. “I really thought I had to go to the ER. Then I took some TUMS.”
She laughed as I looked on, horrified.
If you’re like many women, you’ve either experienced heartburn yourself or seen friends and family members wincing in pain after eating. About 60 million Americans experience heartburn once a month, and about a quarter of us feel the burn every day according to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG). For most of those people, finding home remedies for heartburn is essential to easing the pain.
That’s because sometimes heartburn can be a minor inconvenience, but other times—like in my aunt’s case—it can cause debilitating discomfort. If you experience heartburn regularly, it can really detract from your quality of life, making it hard to enjoy meals and even keeping you up at night. Because heartburn and indigestion often strike unexpectedly, it’s good to know how a few effective home remedies for heartburn can keep those uncomfortable symptoms at bay.
Fortunately for millions of heartburn sufferers, there are a few useful home remedies for heartburn that alleviate discomfort without requiring a trip to the doctor (although, as always, it’s best to speak with your doctor if you are concerned about any aspect of your health).
Here is everything you need to know about heartburn—and which home remedies for heartburn work best according to the experts.
What causes heartburn?
Despite its name, heartburn actually has nothing to do with your heart, other than the fact that the feeling often originates in the chest before moving upward through the neck and throat.
Heartburn is caused when stomach acid (which helps you digest food) moves backward and upward through the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. According to the ACG, “The prolonged contact of acidic stomach juice with the esophageal lining injures the esophagus and produces a burning discomfort.”
“The esophagus doesn’t have the same protective coating as the stomach, which is designed to withstand very acidic fluid levels, so the acid actually does burn the esophageal lining and cause a burning sensation,” says Kyrin Dunston, MD, a board certified functional medicine specialist.
Normally your esophagus is protected from stomach acid because it is separated from the stomach by a muscle valve called the lower esophageal sphincter. Heartburn occurs when this sphincter relaxes too often, allowing stomach acid flow up into the esophagus. When that happens you’re going to feel discomfort, so it’s important to know which home remedies for heartburn can help.
Heartburn, Acid Reflux, and GERD—Oh My!
Heartburn, acid reflux, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are all terms that are thrown around when we talk about stomach acid and the discomfort it can cause. But there are slight differences between the terms according to Dunston.
“Heartburn is the sensation that someone with the occurrence of acid reflux will experience,” she explains. That means that heartburn is the feeling, and acid reflux is the actual occurrence of your stomach acid creeping into your esophagus.
GERD, Dunston explains, is a condition that is diagnosed when acid reflux occurs frequently.
“Gastroesophageal reflux disease is usually referred to when someone has this occurrence on a consistent basis over time and experiences chronic irritation of the lower esophagus in response to the acid,” she explains. “This may or may not be accompanied by symptoms and may or may not need to be controlled with medication.”
A diagnosis of GERD usually involves medical testing and procedures according to the ACG. While home remedies for heartburn might help you manage the symptoms of GERD, you’ll probably need to talk to your doctor about medical treatment options if you’re experiencing heartburn frequently.
Risk Factors for Heartburn: From Food to Lifestyle
Heartburn most commonly occurs when the stomach is full, which can prevent the lower esophageal sphincter from closing properly, Dunston says. This is why heartburn occurs most frequently after eating and why people who suffer from heartburn are advised to eat smaller meals, which is one of the most effective home remedies for heartburn.
There are other factors that can increase your risk for heartburn according to a scientific review hosted by PubMed Health. A hiatal hernia can cause your stomach bulge out into your chest, restricting your sphincter’s ability to close properly. If your esophagus does not move food down into your stomach quickly enough, you are also more likely to experience heartburn. This particular root cause can be exacerbated by being on hormonal birth control or certain blood pressure medications. Some people believe that being overweight can lead to increased risk of heartburn, but there is debate over this correlation in the scientific community.
Many women find that their heartburn increases during pregnancy, particularly in the third trimester when their baby is taking up an increasing amount of space in the abdominal cavity.
“During pregnancy the enlarging uterus displaces the stomach upwards, which mimics a fuller stomach and also can force the [lower esophageal sphincter] to open, allowing stomach acid to enter the esophagus,” Dunston explains.
Pregnancy hormones can also play a role in pregnancy-related heartburn according to Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse and founder of Remedies For Me. Hormones can slow digestion and relax the muscles in the esophagus that normally push food into the stomach, allowing acid to creep upward, she says.
“The placenta, which produces the hormone progesterone, relaxes the uterine muscles. It also relaxes the valve between the esophagus and stomach, which allows gastric acid to flow backwards into the throat,” Lee explains.
To ease discomfort in the third trimester, most pregnant women are eager to find home remedies for heartburn that are safe for baby as well.
How to Prevent Heartburn Before It Strikes
Now that you know more about what causes heartburn, you’re probably hoping to learn how to stop it from happening. It turns out that the most effective home remedies for heartburn have to do with prevention.
Making lifestyle changes can have a huge impact on how frequently you experience heartburn. This is especially true because the foods that comprise a typical modern American diet can increase people’s risk for heartburn according to Dunston. Chocolate, coffee, alcohol, and foods that are fatty or spicy can all cause heartburn or make the condition worse. If you’re looking for effective home remedies for heartburn, you may want to experiment with taking these foods out of your diet.
“[These foods] increase the amount of acid in the stomach that can enter the lower esophagus and thus can increase symptoms,” Dunston explains.
“Dietary changes are extremely effective and in some cases can completely eliminate symptoms over time,” she says. While chocolate, coffee, alcohol, and fatty and spicy foods are the most common dietary irritants for heartburn, you may find other trigger foods that increase your symptoms. Dunston suggests paying close attention to when your experience heartburn in order to identify which foods might be a trigger for you.
Another important lifestyle change that will increase your overall health and reduce the likelihood of heartburn? Quitting smoking. The habit makes symptoms of heartburn worse according to Dunston.
“Tobacco inhibits saliva, which is the body’s major buffer. Tobacco may also stimulate stomach acid production and relax the muscle between the esophagus and the stomach, permitting acid reflux to occur,” according to the ACG.
If you make these large changes and still find that you’re getting heartburn, it’s time to try more specific, targeted home remedies for heartburn. A good next step is to start eating smaller meals and eating dinner at least three hours before you go to sleep.
“Eating smaller portions allows the stomach to more effectively empty and decrease the pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, lessening symptoms,” Dunston explains.
Lying down increases pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, so it’s a good idea to avoid eating for three hours before bed because your stomach will be empty by the time you’re lying down. Without the added pressure of food in your stomach, the lower esophageal sphincter is more likely to close tightly, meaning that you can enjoy a restful night’s sleep without experiencing heartburn.
If you’re not able to change your meal times, switching up your sleeping position can also help alleviate heartburn.
“Sleeping with several pillows to elevate the upper body helps to alleviate pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter and uses gravity to keep acid in the stomach where it belongs,” Dunston explains.
How to Stop Heartburn Once It’s Started
The worst thing about heartburn is the feeling of helplessness once it’s started. Maybe you indulged in some chocolate or a spicy tomato dish that you knew you shouldn’t have, and now you’re paying the price with searing pain. Thankfully, there are home remedies for heartburn that can help ease the pain after your cheat meal.
There are over-the-counter medications that are designed to help with heartburn, like the popular TUMS. However, there are also a whole host of more natural home remedies for heartburn that are effective. Here are a few of our favorites:
Almonds or Almond Milk
You’ve probably heard of drinking milk to ease the burn of a spicy bite, but when it comes to cooling the fire of heartburn, almond milk is best according to Lee.
“Almonds soothe the stomach due to [their] high oil content. The fiber in nuts aids in digestion,” she says. If you’re experiencing heartburn, she says you could have a glass of almost milk or eat a handful of almonds, and should experience relief within about half an hour.
Kudzu and Apple Juice
Elizabeth Trattner, an acupuncture physician trained in traditional Chinese medicine, says one of her more reliable treatments for heartburn is kudzu. This vine has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine, and recent research has shown that one of its chemical compounds, puerarin, can help alleviate heartburn. Combining kudzu with apple juice, which contains pectin (a plant fiber), can provide on-the-spot relief. You’ll just want to make sure you order kudzu ahead of your next flare-up, since it isn’t particularly easy to find.
Check out food and nutrition educator Rebecca Katz’s recipe for mellow kudzu elixir to learn how apple juice, kuzu root powder, ginger, vanilla, and cinnamon pair to replace your heartburn-inducing coffee with a beverage that’s both soothing and delicious.
Throat Coat Tea
One of the most unpleasant aspects of heartburn can be the burning or acidic taste at the back of your throat. If you’re experiencing this, Trattner recommends sipping throat coat tea, which can give your throat an added layer of protection. “Throat coat is a tea that contains herbs like slippery elm [to] coat the throat but also line the esophagus and stomach … making it a great remedy before hitting medication.”
If you’re experiencing heartburn, the last thing you want to eat is probably a spoonful of yellow mustard, but doing so can provide much-needed relief according to Lee.
“The ingredients in mustard, like vinegar, zinc, and turmeric (which stimulates digestion), can neutralize the acid in the stomach,” Lee explains. Best of all, mustard is a remedy most people already have in their refrigerators. The next time you’re experiencing heartburn, swallow a teaspoon of mustard either on its own or atop a plain cracker. “It works well, and it works fast,” Lee says.
Calcium is one of the main ingredients in over-the-counter antacids, Lee explains, but a regular calcium magnesium supplement (which you might already have at home) is just as effective. Taking 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day (alongside magnesium and vitamin D, which help your body absorb calcium) can prevent and treat heartburn.
“Pickles and their juices act fast on heartburn,” Lee says. “The vinegar content helps to neutralize [acid] levels in the stomach within minutes.” She advises eating a few pickles or drinking straight pickle juice during a heartburn flare-up. You should experience relief within 10 minutes.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Like pickles, apple cider vinegar can act quickly to balance acid level in the stomach, Lee says. If you’re experiencing heartburn, try swallowing a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. If you can withstand the strong taste, hold the vinegar in your mouth for a moment before swallowing to stimulate saliva production—which also helps fight acid.
Heartburn is downright miserable, but fortunately there are plenty of ways to prevent and treat it quickly. The next time you feel the burn give one of these home remedies for heartburn a try as soon as possible!