Dr. Jorge Rodriguez isn’t just an expert on acid reflux—he’s also a patient. The gastroenterologist and author of The Acid Reflux Solution: A Cookbook and Lifestyle Guide for Healing Heartburn Naturally is one of the more than 50 million Americans, who suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). And like many of his patients, for years he popped over-the-counter antacids daily to ease his discomfort. But he had a nagging feeling in the back of his mind.
“Those medications serve a really great purpose, and they work, but they’re not supposed to be taken for more than two months in a row,” he says. “We need acid in the stomach to help digest food, and to change certain minerals in what we eat to iron, calcium and magnesium. There comes a time to close the medicine cabinet.”
Rodriguez began to recommend lifestyle changes to help his patients decrease acid reflux naturally. As he made similar modifications to his own habits, he found his lifelong problem disappearing.
Try his tips to ease your symptoms.
Know the triggers. “One of the causes of reflux is when something opens up the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the gate between your esophagus and your stomach,” says Rodriguez. “Anything that’s a stimulant, like chocolate, coffee or mint, can do this, as can foods high in saturated fat or anything fried.”
Surprisingly, what can’t “open the gate” are foods like tomatoes, citrus and spicy dishes. If you’re in the middle of a painful bout with reflux, they may be uncomfortable to eat, but they shouldn’t trigger a new episode.
Eat slowly and in smaller quantities. Reflux is also enabled by a “traffic jam” in your digestive tract. Too much food in your stomach and nowhere for it to go can put pressure on your LES and cause it to open, sending acid back up.
“I gave up meat for Lent, so this year on Easter Sunday I ate a big meal with meat, and I paid for it,” Rodriguez says with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Haven’t you learned your lesson?’ If I could do it again, I wouldn’t eat as late and I wouldn’t eat as much. But sometimes habits are hard to break.”
Up your fiber intake. If fatty foods, which tend to just sit in your stomach, are some of the worst acid reflux triggers, it makes sense that fiber—which has the opposite effect—only helps. “The more fiber that you have in your stomach, the quicker your stomach empties, and the more quickly things move through the intestinal tract,” Rodriguez says. “It’s like a self-cleaning oven.”
Get moving after meals. It’s the same principle as eating fiber: Sitting or lying down after a meal doesn’t help move the food through your system. “The intestines are almost like those watches that you have to keep winding,” Rodriguez says.
He cautions against heavy workouts after meals, especially cycling or weight lifting, which can put you in a position that exacerbates reflux. “But some light activity, maybe a stroll or a little bit of housework, is important to help the stomach empty,” he says.
Ease up on liquids while eating. You may have noticed that most of Rodriguez’s recommendations are general guidelines for healthy eating. (That’s no coincidence, as obesity is the leading cause of reflux, he says.) But here’s where the advice differs slightly. Because drinking a lot of water with a meal can help fill you up quickly—something dieters often appreciate—it’s risky for reflux sufferers. “You don’t want your stomach to be too full,” Rodriguez says. “When you stretch the stomach out, you’re also stretching out that gate, when it is open, things can reflux.” It’s fine to drink a little while you eat, but don’t guzzle mass quantities until you’ve had a little time to digest.
Still don’t believe you can beat heartburn unless you’re eating bland foods? Try Dr. Rodriguez’s recipes for Scallop Corn Chowder, Orrechiette With Broccoli Rabe, Ricotta and Sausage and Moroccan Spiced Pork Loin With Apricots and Chickpeas.