Feeling the burn? That painful sensation in your chest or throat—acid reflux, or what doctors call GERD—isn't intractable. Lifestyle and dietary tweaks can bring relief, experts say. "Simple [changes] can make a big difference," says gastroenterologist Jorge Rodriguez, author of the new book The Acid Reflux Solution (Ten Speed Press, $21.99). That's promising, since researchers warn that heartburn drugs may do more harm than good, increasing the risk of infection with an intestinal bacteria or even the likelihood of contracting pneumonia.
Here are nine easy ways to alleviate heartburn without swallowing a pill:
1. Raise the head of your bed. Most acid reflux occurs during sleep. To prevent nighttime attacks, "you need to position your head at an angle," so it's higher than your abdomen, says Rodriguez. Elevate the head of your bed a minimum of 30 degrees, perhaps with a firm foam-rubber wedge, or by putting bricks under your bedposts. "The worst thing you can do is lie flat down, especially right after eating." Give yourself at least 30 minutes to digest a meal before hitting the sack.
2. Sleep on your left side. Research from the Stanford School of Medicine suggests that snoozing on your right side worsens reflux. So does stomach sleeping.
3. Chew your food well. Forget wolfing down your meals. Digestion begins in the mouth, and if you don't chew your food well, you're asking for trouble. Chew each bite for 20 seconds.
4. Eat less but more often. Portion control is key to managing acid reflux, Rodriguez says. Reduce the size of all your meals, but schedule more frequent, evenly-spaced snacks. And only eat until you're satisfied, not until you're stuffed. Overeating causes the stomach to stretch more than normal, increasing the production of gastric acid. "Small portions are the way to go," Rodriguez says.
5. Cut carbs. In one study by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, obese GERD patients who curtailed their carbohydrate intake to 20 grams a day or less experienced a substantial decrease in acidity and symptoms. If cutting carbs doesn't help after about two weeks, try another tactic.
6. Loosen your belt. If your belt is too tight or your jeans are too small, there will be more pressure on your stomach—and less room for food. That can trigger the release of extra acid, while stressing the lower esophageal sphincter.
7. Choose post-meal activities wisely. Exercising after eating? Bending over after a meal? Both are tickets to the heartburn hotel.
8. Quit smoking and cut back on alcohol. Research suggests that both cause GERD. Smoking stimulates the production of stomach acid, and excessive drinking also triggers reflux. Maintaining a healthy weight is also helpful, since extra fat puts pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter.
9. Chew gum. You'll produce more saliva, which neutralizes stomach acid, research suggests. Chew a piece or two before bedtime.