With spring, the warmest and longest days not only flowers appear but, unfortunately, also some disorders that can be observed for the first time or worsen if already existing. Among these ailments we mention allergies, asthma but also, and above all, acid reflux and heartburn, which are today's topics. But why does this happen, and why exactly at this season of the year? And what can we do to reduce the symptoms of acid reflux and heartburn? We talk about it on the basis of the most interesting scientific studies.
Acid reflux and heartburn, what they are and why they get worse in spring
First of all, it should be noted that acid reflux and heartburn are not the same thing even though these two terms are often used interchangeably. Heartburn is that unpleasant burning sensation behind the breastbone and is, together with hoarseness, cough, swallowing problems and even asthma, one of the consequences of acid reflux, which is the ascent of gastric juices from the stomach to the esophagus (Khoury et al, Am J Gastroenterol, 1999). Acid reflux and heartburn are very common ailments that can affect, according to estimates, more than a third of the world's population and which can be experienced at any time of the year, but in spring they can become particularly annoying. This is due to the fact that we are the result of an evolution and that our ancestors, in winter, could go hungry due to the difficulty in finding food. Here the stomach, less involved in digestion, protected itself by producing less gastric juices so as not to damage the mucous membranes. This scarcity of food ended with the spring, when it was easier to find what to feed on and the stomach produced, and still produces, more gastric juices. Not only that, longer days stimulate the production of cortisol that, in turn, limits the peristaltic movements that promote digestion. Slower digestion and longer food stays in the stomach increase the risk of acid reflux. In addition to this, spring also pays the price for bad habits accumulated during the winter, such as large meals and a sedentary life, which irritate the stomach lining (Dr Lollo, Humanitas Hospital blog).
Acid reflux and heartburn, possible interventions
Lifestyle is becoming increasingly important in terms of symptom control in case of acid reflux and heartburn. Interventions concerning nutrition and certain habits have proven to be of considerable help. First, against acid reflux and heartburn, it's important to stop smoking, if you're doing it, and follow an active lifestyle for weight control. Then, if the acid reflux strikes at night it may help to sleep with the head elevated and, even better, to prefer the left lateral position, which has been shown to reduce the frequency of reflux episodes and the time the esophagus is in contact with gastric juices (Khoury et al, Am J Gastroenterol, 1999). Instead, as far as diet is concerned, its role is more debated. In fact, from what emerges from the comparison of previous studies, much depends on the person and his sensitivity, since foods considered capable of stimulating reflux in some people may instead not cause symptoms in others. Therefore, any limitation of particular foods should always be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and maintained only if there are real benefits (Khoury et al, Am J Gastroenterol, 1999). In any case, below we will see the foods considered to be the main responsible for acid reflux and heartburn.
Acid reflux and heartburn, the role of diet
Based on research, it is possible to isolate some foods and eating habits that, in most cases, can trigger acid reflux and heartburn. First, large meals eaten close to bedtime increase the risk of acid reflux. Then, 85% of the people involved in the studies indicated, as foods responsible for reflux, fried foods, very spicy meals, chocolate, orange juice and citrus fruits, but only if consumed between meals, and the tomato (Tack et al, Am J Gastroenterol, 2022). Even drinking alcohol can induce acid reflux in predisposed people (Tack et al, Am J Gastroenterol, 2022). The role of coffee and tea, on the other hand, is less clear, between those who say that these drinks increase the risk of acid reflux and those who do not observe any worsening. These are probably two drinks that only promote acid reflux in some people (Tack et al, Am J Gastroenterol, 2022). All carbonated drinks in general are associated with an increase in acid reflux cases (Tack et al, Am J Gastroenterol, 2022). Up to here we have talked about the foods to pay attention to, but there are also foods to be preferred and which have shown a protective action on the stomach and esophagus. For example, following the Mediterranean diet and ensuring an adequate intake of vitamin C have been shown to reduce the frequency of acid reflux episodes, as well as, after eating, going for a walk instead of sitting on the sofa (Zhang et al, Ther Clin Risk Manag, 2021). The kiwifruit deserves a special mention. In fact, the regular consumption of kiwifruit has been shown to protect the stomach, reduce acid reflux and abdominal pain, even if the mechanisms have not yet been clarified (Bayer et al, Adv Nutr, 2022).
Acid reflux and heartburn, help from herbal medicine
Myrtle berries, scientific name myrtus communis, have been shown to protect the gastric mucosa and to reduce acid reflux (Salehi et al, J Altern Complement Med, 2017). Myrtle can be taken in the form of syrup, but also as herbal tea prepared from the berries. In this case, bring a cup of water to the boil, add a teaspoon of berries and simmer for 3-4 minutes, then remove from the heat, let it rest for ten minutes, then filter and drink. In addition to this, there are herbal blends, which you can request from your herbalist or buy ready-made, based on chamomile flowers, cumin, licorice, lemon balm, peppermint and angelica that have been shown to significantly reduce acid reflux, retrosternal pain and acid regurgitation (Dossett et al, Prim Care, 2017).