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The Connection Between Exercise and Acid Reflux

Image of The Connection Between Exercise and Acid Reflux
Image of The Connection Between Exercise and Acid Reflux

You did it. You resisted the temptation to hang out on the couch and instead laced up your shoes and went for a jog.

You’re feeling good about your health-conscious choice. At least, you were—until suddenly your chest feels tight and you realize you’re now dealing with a nasty case of heartburn. Yep, there’s no doubt that your acid reflux symptoms are flaring up.

What the heck? How is this fair? You tried to do something positive for your body, and this is how it decides to repay you?

Sigh. It’s a classic catch-22. We all know that frequent exercise is good for us. But, for those who struggle with acid reflux, also frequently referred to as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), those sweat sessions can also kick some not-so-pleasant symptoms into high gear.

So what can you do—other than resign yourself to a life spent on the couch? We have the lowdown on everything you need to know about acid reflux and exercise.

How does exercise help acid reflux?

While this correlation between physical activity and reflux certainly isn’t fun, we’ll never be the ones to tell you that exercise is all bad. This isn’t your permission to remain sedentary—your body needs a certain amount of movement in order to stay relatively healthy.

Plus, the good news is that exercise does offer some benefits in regards to acid reflux. The biggest one relates to weight loss.

As the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases explains, people who are overweight or obese have increased pressure on their abdomen. That puts the lower esophageal sphincter (think of that as the door that’s supposed to keep your stomach acid where it belongs) under significant strain, which means it’s able to let more stomach acid flow backward. That wrong-way acid is what causes heartburn and other symptoms.

However, frequent exercise is extremely helpful when it comes to managing our weight and shedding some extra pounds. And, that effort can help reduce acid reflux symptoms.

In fact, one 2013 study of 332 different subjects discovered a significant correlation between a percent of body weight loss and a reduction in GERD symptoms.

How does exercise trigger acid reflux?

Are you ready for the bad news? If you’ve noticed heartburn or a sour taste in your mouth after a serious HIIT session in the gym, that’s probably not a coincidence. For some people, exercise really can trigger acid reflux.

Gastroenterologist and Evens medical advisor Gil Weitzman explains that it’s not totally understood why exercise can bring on these GERD symptoms. However, there are a few things happening in the body that could explain this onslaught of symptoms.

“It is thought that exercise can increase the intra-abdominal pressure which can promote acid reflux,” Weitzman says.

“Furthermore, exercise has been shown to increase the frequency of transient lower esophageal sphincter relaxation (TLESR) by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter, which is the muscle that prevents gas and acid from regurgitating up into the esophagus,” he adds. “These TLESR episodes are highly correlated with episodes of acid reflux.”

Research from the Department of Sports Medicine at Wroclaw University of Physical Education in Poland backs up the fact that exercise can contribute to acid reflux. Researchers found that GERD symptoms can actually be increased in athletes, and they point to a slew of possible exercise-related causes, including:

  • Decreased gastrointestinal blood flow
  • Alterations of hormone secretion
  • Constrained position of the body during exercise

Unfortunately, there isn’t one clearcut culprit for your exercise-induced acid reflux.

What can I do if exercise triggers acid reflux?

We understand if the last thing you want to do is suffer through a jog on the treadmill only to end up with heartburn. However, you aren’t at a total loss here. You’re not left to choose between a life as a couch potato or miserable acid reflux symptoms.

Here are a few ways you can still fit in those gym sessions—without ending up in total misery.

Change what type of exercise you do

Are you a runner? A master of burpees? Or maybe a total whiz with a jump rope? Those are all great aerobic exercises for your heart—but they’re not so great for your acid reflux.

That’s because they’re high impact, and as Harvard Medical School explains, that type of strenuous activity can send your stomach acid headed straight back for your esophagus.

Instead, it’s better to opt for lower-impact routines (think things like yoga, swimming, stationary biking, or even walking) that will hopefully prevent your stomach contents from bouncing all around.

Just be aware that yoga poses that involve being inverted (like downward dog) can also cause some problems in terms of keeping acid where it belongs. Aim for exercises that keep you mostly upright.

Take medication

You can also stock up your medicine cabinet in order to combat your pesky reflux symptoms. There are plenty of options available in the following categories:

Antacids: These don’t do much to actually treat the cause of your acid reflux, but they can help to reduce your discomfort by neutralizing your stomach acid.

H2 Blockers: Despite the fact that “blocker” is in the name, this category of medication helps to reduce (and not totally prevent) the amount of acid that your stomach releases.

Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs): If you want to take a more proactive approach, this type of medication actually blocks your body from producing acid. Less acid hopefully reduces the likelihood that it flows backward and causes heartburn.

All of the above categories have over-the-counter medications available, but you’ll need a prescription from your healthcare provider if you require a stronger version.

Switch your pre-workout routine

You likely have a regimen that you do before you workout. Maybe you take some time to stretch your muscles or you pull on your lucky socks while sorting out the perfect playlist.

You know that what you do before you exercise really counts—and that sentiment holds true for your acid reflux too. Switching up what you do ahead of a workout can help to relieve or even prevent some of your symptoms.

Spicy foods are a known trigger for acid reflux, so it’s best to exercise serious moderation when indulging in those (especially before you hit the gym). If you’ve been known to chow down a huge feast to fuel up before a workout, try opting for smaller meals instead and waiting for 1-2 hours before starting your exercise. Your stomach won’t be as full, which will reduce the pressure and strain on your lower esophageal sphincter.

Additionally, step away from any carbonated energy drinks, pre-workout mixes, or really any other bubbly beverage. That carbonation fills up and stretches your stomach which—you guessed it—adds pressure to your lower esophageal sphincter.

When in doubt, stick with water. You’ll stay hydrated, and your stomach will thank you.

Unfortunately, for people who struggle with acid reflux, strenuous exercise brings on more than endorphins and sore muscles—it can actually inspire heartburn and other frustrating and uncomfortable symptoms.

On the plus side, there are some tactics you can put into play to have a successful workout, without feeling like your lunch is coming right back up. Give them a try and you’ll feel the burn in the gym—but not necessarily heartburn.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

*This information should not be used to decide whether or not to take this medicine or any other medicine. Only the healthcare provider has the knowledge and training to decide which medicines are right for a specific patient. This information does not endorse any medicine as safe, effective, or approved for treating any patient or health condition. This is only a brief summary of general information about this medicine. It does NOT include all information about the possible uses, directions, warnings, precautions, interactions, adverse effects, or risks that may apply to this medicine. This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from the healthcare provider. You must talk with the healthcare provider for complete information about the risks and benefits of using this medicine. *

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