What you eat and drink can not only trigger heartburn, but it can also play a role in its severity. Heartburn occurs when stomach contents back up into the esophagus. Those who experience it more than twice a week may have a chronic condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Certain foods can aggravate and increase the likelihood of acid reflux -- and the resulting heartburn -- by increasing stomach acid production or triggering relaxation of the muscular ring that separates the esophagus and stomach. Yogurt has been touted as a natural heartburn remedy, but the research remains unclear. While yogurt may temporarily relieve heartburn, it can also trigger or worsen it.
How Yogurt Might Trigger Heartburn
Yogurt may trigger or aggravate heartburn, in part, because some brands are high in total fat and contain saturated fat, which can worsen GERD. A study published in January 2005 in "Gut" found that high fat intake was associated with an increased risk of GERD symptoms and inflammation of the esophagus. Researchers theorize that high-fat foods might increase the risk of reflux since they stay in the stomach longer, stimulating more acid release. These foods might also cause relaxation of the muscular band between the esophagus and stomach, allowing stomach contents to leak into the esophagus. Yogurt is also slightly acidic, which can add to irritation of the esophagus during episodes of reflux.
How Yogurt Might Help Heartburn
When eaten in moderation, yogurt prevents and alleviates heartburn and GERD symptoms in some people. Yogurt is a probiotic food, containing bacteria that are thought to help keep the digestive system healthy. Although more research is needed, some studies indicate that yogurt and probiotic bacteria are beneficial. A small Japanese study published in "Pharmaceuticals" in June 2014 found that people with persistent heartburn despite use of acid-suppressing drugs experienced GERD symptoms improvement after eating yogurt with probiotic bacteria daily for 3 months. An April 2011 "European Journal of Clinical Investigation" study noted faster stomach emptying and less reflux associated with use of a probiotic supplement in infants. It's unclear, however, if this effect occurs with yogurt consumption.
How to Choose Yogurt
Finding out how yogurt affects your heartburn can take some trial and error, as triggers differ from person to person. Because yogurts vary in their fat content, ingredients and acidity, certain types might be less likely to be triggering. Low-fat and fat-free yogurts may avoid fat's negative impact on GERD, unlike whole-milk or high-fat varieties. Plain yogurt -- free of added sugars, artificial sweeteners and other additives -- may also be a safer bet. According to GERD expert Dr. Jonathan Aviv, flavored yogurts are often high in sugars and additives, which may worsen acid reflux. Plain yogurt can be sweetened naturally with nonacidic fruits such as berries or melon. Only yogurts with active cultures offer probiotic benefits.
Professional medical guidelines neither recommend yogurt nor its avoidance for heartburn, as there isn't enough evidence to prove harm or benefit. Keeping a heartburn diary can help you determine how yogurt affects you. Change one food in your diet at a time and note its effects on your symptoms. When trying yogurt, note the kind consumed. Because food isn't the only factor that can contribute to acid reflux, also consider heartburn triggers such as certain medicines, smoking, overeating and lying down too soon after eating. If your heartburn continues to be a problem, consult your doctor since frequent heartburn can damage your esophagus and cause other health problems.
Medical advisor: Jonathan E. Aviv, M.D., FACS