BY JENNIFER MOTL

Heartburn affects almost half of Americans, especially folks over 45, and there are some gentle diet changes that can help alleviate it.

Healing heartburn goes beyond knowing what to avoid. It’s also about knowing which foods are most soothing—such as yogurt and, surprisingly, certain spices and herbs.

Heartburn is often caused by GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease. That means stomach acid is backing up into the throat, which can cause a burning sensation in the chest. The pain can be so bad that it wakes people up at night and distracts them from their work during the day.

About 30 percent of Americans have GERD, according to Mary Washington Hospital’s Heartburn Treatment Center. GERD can worsen chronic coughing and asthma, according to the National Institutes of Health, and may lead to throat cancer over many years.

But about 10 percent of the time, the heartburn is due not to reflux but to an infection of Helicobacter pylori. This bacterium can cause pain, ulcers, anemia, B-vitamin deficiencies and even stomach cancer if not treated with antibiotics. About half the world’s population has H. pylori, though not everyone gets symptoms from it. There can be other causes of chest and stomach pain, too, so if you have heartburn frequently, please see your health care provider.

If you do a mild case of GERD, diet and lifestyle changes may solve the problem. There are medications that can help, too. However, food is not enough to cure an H. pylori infection. Antibiotics are a must. Certain foods can amplify the antibiotics’ power, but they do not replace the antibiotics.

NEW RESEARCH

To help contend with heartburn, you’ll want to eat more of certain foods while avoiding some other foods. Yogurt, cranberry juice, olive oil, broccoli sprouts and several spices all have been shown to reduce H. pylori infections.

I recommend eating yogurt daily. Folks who took their antibiotics with probiotics (the friendly bacteria found in yogurt) were 10 percent more likely to be cured of H. pylori and had 66 percent fewer side effects, such as diarrhea, according to research done in China and Michigan.

Antibiotics taken with cranberry juice kill 10 to 20 percent more H. pylori, according to Asian studies. Drinking an ounce of virgin olive oil every day for two weeks killed H. pylori in 10 percent of Spanish volunteers. Broccoli sprouts also can kill H. pylori, according to New Zealand researchers. You can buy broccoli sprouts at health-food stores.

Despite frequent advice to avoid spicy foods, research shows some spices aid healing. Studies have showed that turmeric (a yellow spice found in bottled mustard and in curry powder) is especially potent against H. pylori. Other spices such as cumin, ginger, cayenne or chili pepper, oregano, nutmeg, cloves, parsley and lemongrass also kill some of the bacteria.

While spices are not as effective as antibiotics, it may be helpful to spice up your food while you take your antibiotics and afterward, to reduce relapses.

STEER CLEAR OF SOME THINGS

If you’re a heartburn sufferer, avoid coffee, both regular and decaffeinated, because both have been shown to irritate the stomach. Try decaf tea if you crave a hot drink.

Also avoid carbonated beverages such as sodas and energy drinks. The fizzy bubbles put pressure on a muscle—called a sphincter—that separates the stomach from the throat, worsening reflux.

Avoid alcohol and peppermint, both of which relax the sphincter. And avoid fried, greasy or fatty foods, which can trigger the stomach to make more acid.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily need to avoid tomatoes, oranges, vinegar, chocolate, onions or spicy foods, unless you are personally sensitive to them. Try eliminating these foods and slowly adding them back; then watch to see if you have a reaction.

If you have H. pylori, eating less salt can help keep your infection from returning, according to some studies. Scientists aren’t clear on how strict you need to be, but I recommend reading food labels and limiting sodium to 2,000 milligrams daily, the amount that keeps your heart healthy.

OTHER IDEAS

Besides tweaking your eating habits, you can adjust your lifestyle to reduce reflux. Try some of these ideas from the National Institutes of Health and the American Gastroenterological Association.

  • Wear loose-fitting pants or belts to reduce pressure on the stomach.
  • Do not lie down within three hours of eating.
  • If you are bothered by pain at night, consider placing bricks or books under the head of your bed to create a slight incline. This helps gravity keep the acid in your stomach, where it belongs.
  • Quit smoking—for unknown reasons, tobacco irritates the stomach.
  • Ask your pharmacist if you are taking any medications that irritate the stomach. Aspirin and ibuprofen are common culprits.
  • If you feel more pain on stressful days, consider therapy. Or try do-it-yourself options such as yoga or meditation.
  • Exercise is doubly helpful—not only does it relax you, it also can help you lose any unwanted pounds. Statistically, overweight folks are more likely to have GERD, so exercise can help.

Between tweaking your lifestyle, adding soothing foods and checking in with your physician, you’ll likely be feeling better soon.

Jennifer Motl is a registered dietitian. Formerly of Fredericksburg, she now lives in Wisconsin. She welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteating.com, or by email at healthyliving@freelancestar .com.