Common thinking is that acidic foods and drinks — like orange juice, tomato sauce and jalapeños – cause heartburn. According to NPR, this makes no sense because the acid in our stomachs is going to be much stronger than almost anything we eat. Heartburn is simply that stomach acid escaping through the valve at the top of the stomach — the lower esophageal sphincter. Therefore, heartburn is independent of the food we eat, because even the healthiest, most non-acidic food will still need stomach acid to be digested and if it can overflow, it will. The trick is to keep the sphincter from opening, which it does for generally two reasons:
- The sphincter is weak or broken for some reason (being fat makes this more likely)
- The sphincter is relaxed and just doesn’t fully tighten up
It turns out that caffeine and alcohol both relax the sphincter, so if you’re thin and getting heartburn, stay away from Irish coffee. Also, avoid eating big, fatty meals: fatty foods take longer to break down, so the stomach acid will be around longer, giving it more opportunity to back up through an opening in the sphincter. Ditto for large amounts of food, just due to their bulk. So large amounts of fat food, followed by alcohol or caffeine and a weak sphincter are a recipe for heartburn. Eating Tums and drinking milk will help by neutralizing some of the stomach acid so it doesn’t overflow, but that’s counterproductive to actually digesting the food in it.