We all know what acid reflux — also known as heartburn — feels like, but what actually causes that acidic, bitter, burning sensation?
Heartburn occurs when gastric acid flows backward from the stomach into the esophagus. Normally, the lower esophageal sphincter (a circular bundle of muscles that sits between the esophagus and the stomach) acts as a valve that prevents the backflow of acid, but some foods or medical conditions cause this ring of muscle to relax prematurely, allowing stomach acid to splash upwards. This produces that all-too-familiar burning sensation.
Common causes of acid reflux are lying down too soon after eating a large meal, being overweight or obese, smoking, and taking certain muscle relaxers, but your diet also plays an important role.
Cut down on your post-meal pain by avoiding these five foods that are likely giving you heartburn.
Receiving a box of chocolate might make your heart swoon, but it might also make it burn. Consuming chocolate causes your serotonin level to surge, and this wave of serotonin relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, allowing gastric stomach acid to flow into the esophagus. Cocoa’s caffeine content may also exacerbate mild cases of acid reflux.
That sour, scrunched-up face you get after biting into a wedge of lemon or lime is a clear indication that these fruits are acidic, but eating citrus fruits can actually accelerate the production of stomach acid. After eating a big meal, a greater quantity of stomach acid makes reflux more likely. Citrus fruits can be especially problematic when eaten on an empty stomach.
Peppermint-flavored gum or after-dinner mints may give a cooling sensation, but peppermint can actually increase instances of heartburn. Peppermint relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter located between the stomach and the esophagus. If the sphincter muscle isn’t fully engaged, stomach acid can flow up into the esophagus.
Yes, hot sauce makes even the blandest of dishes palatable, but an extra dash of Tabasco or squeeze of sriracha will keep the burn going long after the meal is over. Spicy food irritates the lining of the esophagus and increases the production of stomach acid.
Tomato sauce seems harmless enough, but it’s a nightmare for people with acid reflux. Tomatoes contain two types of acids, citrus and malic, both of which lead to heartburn. When the body digests tomatoes, an excess of gastric acid is produced, which backs up through the esophagus and leads to heartburn. However, tomatoes have also been linked to reduced risk of prostate cancer, so don’t be too quick to remove them from your diet — and note that raw tomatoes have far less negative effect than cooked ones do.