By Maureen Salamon
Ugh, heartburn. Not a single one of us enjoys when stomach acid splashes upward into the esophagus and throat, causing that well-known burning, burping, discomfort or even coughing or hoarseness.
But whether you’re prone to chronic heartburn – also known as acid reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) – or it only happens once in awhile, everyone should know what can activate it or make it worse.
So-called “trigger foods” making heartburn more likely include tomato sauce, peppermint, chocolate, onions, peppers and spicy dishes, as well as beverages such as citrus juices, coffee, soda, alcohol and others containing caffeine. On top of that, fried foods can loosen the sphincter muscle at the top of the stomach, allowing food and stomach acid to splash upwards into the esophagus and throat.
As a primer, a pH of 7 is neutral, with levels lower than that considered acidic and levels higher considered alkaline. Our stomachs are naturally acidic, with normal stomach acid – necessary to properly break down foods – keeping stomach pH levels between 1 and 4.
There’s a growing school of thought that eating foods with a pH higher than 4 can help steer overall pH levels in the stomach into the higher range, potentially averting heartburn or the need for antacids. And preliminary scientific evidence supports the notion that choosing low-acid foods can ease reflux, with a small 2011 study in Annals of Otology, Rhinology and Laryngology showing that those continuing to suffer from reflux despite taking antacid drugs experienced symptom improvement after consuming only foods and drinks with a pH of 5 or higher for two weeks or longer.
With that in mind, here are 5 healthy foods surprisingly low in acid that may help guard against acid reflux.
The old adage about an apple a day keeping the doctor away may also apply to heartburn, according to a growing consensus among nutrition experts. With a pH of about 4, apples are considered moderately alkaline – although red apples, which tend to be sweeter, are a better choice than sour green versions in this regard. Additionally, apples contain the alkalizing minerals calcium, potassium and magnesium, which is an ingredient in many acid reflux drugs. Apples are also a rich source of fiber, a trait fueling their ability to help absorb excess stomach acid.
Popeye’s favorite food has long been known as a nutritional powerhouse because of its high iron and potassium content, but spinach can also fight heartburn. Joined by other green veggies such as broccoli, asparagus, kale and collard greens, spinach’s pH above 6 helps it nicely balance the stomach’s acidity.
Most of us know bananas are an alkaline fruit that prove useful against acid reflux because of their ability to coat an irritated esophageal lining. But melons also fall into this category. With a pH above 6 – especially breakfast darlings cantaloupe and honeydew – melons are also a rich source of magnesium, a mineral found in many acid reflux remedies. Try them in your morning smoothie instead of higher-acidity berries.
Almost calorie-free because of its high water content, celery is also frequently tapped as an appetite suppressant – a bonus when it comes to halting the overeating that can bring on heartburn. Rich in magnesium and other key nutrients, celery was shown in a 2010 study to help prevent or lessen the development of ulcers in the digestive tract. The research in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Biology found celery contains a certain type of protective ethanol extract that can replenish gastric mucus necessary to coat the stomach lining and control the amount of gastric acid released.
Despite raisins’ tiny size, they pack a nutritional wallop. Full of fiber – which can help absorb excess stomach acid – raisins made from any type of grape typically carry a pH above 4 and are considered a highly alkaline-forming food. Also rich in calcium, iron, potassium, folate and vitamin C, raisins are held in high regard for their many digestive benefits. They’re even better when paired with toast or oatmeal, which are also both considered GERD-fighting foods.
Maureen Salamon is a widely published health and medical writer who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN.com, HealthDay, The Dallas Morning News and other major publications.