Sure, doctor’s advice is important and all. But when you’re dealing with a health issue, sometimes the most helpful hacks come not from the experts or the science, but from the people who have been living every day with the same issue. Here are their tried-and-true workarounds.
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When I was diagnosed with acid reflux, I was immediately put on proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), given a list of foods I “should” avoid, and sent on my way. Acid reflux, or GERD, is extremely common–about 20 percent of people in the US are affected–and many deal with it using medication. It wasn’t until I tried to get off my meds that I realized living with acid reflux is more complicated than popping a pill. There’s conflicting and troubling evidence about the efficacy and safety of long term PPI use, and so I decided to quit them. To do so I’d have to make some lifestyle changes. There are some people for whom staying on medication is the best option, but my case wasn’t severe; I wanted to see if I could do without. I had that list of what the doctor told me to do, but here are some acid reflux life hacks I’ve come up with on my own, so you don’t have to. (And no, apple cider vinegar will not be on this list.)
Don’t accept that you have to give up everything awesome
It can seem as if every delicious food—coffee, chocolate, all alcohol—is now off-limits. But what I’ve heard from real people with acid reflux is that everyone is different. Some foods may cause your symptoms to flare up but leave me unaffected. And vice versa. It sounds annoying, but try this for a week: Write down everything you eat, and when you eat it. Try to isolate trigger foods to certain days, so you can be sure what you’re reacting to. I found that, like a lot of people, coffee was a big no for me. Chocolate and whiskey, though, I didn’t have a reaction to and they have happily stayed in my life.
Get creative about the foods you miss
Learning what foods were my triggers didn’t always lead to a happy ending. No more coffee? No more pizza (because, tomatoes)? No more spicy foods? It was a whole bunch of my favorite things, and after a couple weeks of quitting them all I realized I needed to fill these gaping holes in my life, rather than getting up in the morning and sadly looking at my empty coffee cup. Nothing will be a perfect replacement, but I found foods and drinks that are similar in taste profiles that could take over another food’s role.
Not marinara sauce: Eating pasta at home is the tastiest lazy night dinner, and having a good red sauce on hand can lead to lasagnas, pizzas, subs, and more. I loved marinara sauce, and it was one of the hardest things for me to give up. Now, I make a sauce in the blender of equal parts steamed beets, carrots, and butternut squash, with all the garlic, basil, and oregano. It turns out bright red and while not as acidic as a tomato sauce (that’s the point), it’s chunky and delicious. For even less effort, you can make a similar sauce by dumping a jar of store-bought roasted red peppers in the blender with Italian spices.
Coffee: I know, I know. There will never be a true coffee replacement. Tea is the obvious choice here, but if that’s not satisfying for you, there’s some fun alternatives that are also caffeine free. (Caffeine bothers some people with acid reflux.) One is maca powder, which provides a kind of similar buzz as caffeine, but sans caffeine. You can dissolve the powder in water and serve with milk just like a latte. Some teas, like roasted dandelion root or chicory root, also have that bitter, roasty flavor. I like to blend maca powder into roasted dandelion root tea, with a bit of cocoa powder and honey and make a latte from that. Turmeric lattes are also an option for a heartier morning drink besides a weak tea: Mix turmeric powder, ginger powder, and milk together with a sweetener and you have a comforting cup of something to start your day. If black tea triggers you, and you’re missing that: there are green tea versions of Earl Grey, and rooibos versions of chai tea.
Spices > spicy: I loved spicy food, and when I stopped eating it abruptly, my food felt bland and boring. But there’s a way to drum up the flavor without burning a hole in your stomach. Go crazy on the spices! Cinnamon, basil, oregano, parsley, sage, cilantro, thyme; these are all your friends. Pro-tip: adding a ton of ginger to food (especially asian dishes) can make something seem spicy. I find the flavor of dried herbs a bit lacking, so I buy a bunch fresh, wash them, and stick them in the freezer in ziploc bags.
Negotiate at restaurants
Why is everything covered in citrus these days? It’s lemon this, and orange zest that. My situation is complicated because I’m a vegan, and it seems like my only options at many restaurants are tomato-covered pasta, or lemon-covered veggies. I try to look at menus before I go out to eat, and think about modifications I can ask for, nicely. Yea, acid reflux isn’t the same as an allergy, so you might feel less confident asking for special treatment. But I worked in the service industry for a long time and know that generally, people are happy to make easy changes. One tip I recommend: skip the salad dressing. Always. They can be so acidic and ruin your meal before you get started. Get olive oil instead, and load up on salt and pepper.
Sleep on your left side
This one is short and sweet. Researchers don’t know entirely why this works, but one explanation is simple gravity. If you sleep on your left side, where your esophagus connects to your stomach will be above the acid in your stomach. If you sleep on your right side, it’s reversed, pulling acid towards your esophagus. Go to the left.
Give yourself plenty of room to cheat
This is the one I’m the worst at, as evidenced by how I have a list of rules I can type out at will. Our stomachs are strongly connected to our brains, and the amount of stress you have can influence your reflux and how much it interrupts your life. Lately I’ve tried to be more relaxed in the face of food adversity: When confronted with a food with a “bad” ingredient somewhere in it, I used to veto it immediately. Now, if I’m at a social gathering, or it’s something I really want, I let myself have it and try not to stress. Pick a couple restrictions a day and stick by them (something is better than nothing) and be kind to yourself about the rest. The mania that comes along with total restriction can be damaging on your body too– so finding the balance is really important. If you’re totally miserable, it won’t matter if your diet is perfect; you’ll still feel like shit.