Can Eating Wheat Cause Heartburn?

Whether it's chapati or pita or a flour tortilla, wraps are your favorite go-to for lunch, but you're wondering if all that wheat is the culprit behind midday heartburn. It's not the typical trigger, but there are some circumstances when avoiding wheat might help.

Certain foods can trigger acid reflux, or heartburn.
Credit: AleksandarGeorgiev/E+/GettyImages

Can Wheat Trigger Heartburn?

"Wheat doesn't necessarily cause or worsen heartburn,' says C. Prakash Gyawali, MD, a professor of gastroenterology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "But it is known that celiac patients — people who are intolerant of wheat — can have heartburn. And when they stop eating gluten, their heartburn gets better," he says.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and wheat-based grains like semolina, spelt and farro, as well as rye, barley and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye), according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.

If you get heartburn — generally described as a burning pain behind the breastbone — after eating meals containing wheat, does that mean you should be tested for celiac disease? Not necessarily. Says Dr. Gyawali: "Common symptoms for celiac disease will be bloating and pain and diarrhea. Heartburn would not be a predominant symptom. The vast majority of people who say they have burning behind the breastbone probably have reflux or some form of esophageal disorder rather than celiac disease."

In fact, wheat can be one of the main causes of a condition called eosinophilic esophagitis, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. In this condition, the lining of your esophagus — the muscular tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach — becomes inflamed with white blood cells called eosinophils.

"Sometimes, those patients can have heartburn or a discomfort in the chest that they describe as heartburn," says Dr. Gyawali. "In those patients, gluten may be one of the food triggers that can be taken away to improve their symptoms."

Read more: The 10 Worst Foods for Acid Reflux

When the Problem Is Acid Reflux or GERD

If you don't have one of the above conditions, it's more likely your heartburn is caused by acid reflux. That's when the muscular valve between your stomach and esophagus weakens or doesn't close properly, and acid from your stomach washes back up toward your mouth. When you have acid reflux, you may also have a bitter or sour taste (some people call this "acidity") in the back of your throat. If you get heartburn often, your doctor may diagnose you with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

When you feel heartburn after eating, the cause may be more related to the size of the meal than to whether it contained wheat, says Dr. Gyawali. "The more full the stomach is, the more likely it is that stomach contents can come up," he explains.

Heartburn can also be due to other ingredients in your meal. According to the American Gastroenterological Association, foods that are know to trigger heartburn include:

  • Fried or fatty foods
  • Chocolate
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Tomato sauce
  • Citrus fruits or juices

Read more: Fruits and Vegetables That Are Safe to Eat With GERD

How to Ease Acidity

Regardless of the cause, heartburn can be uncomfortable and upsetting. So what's the fastest way to relieve it? "Taking a few sips of water will neutralize or dilute the acid," says Dr. Gyawali. "Or a small amount of milk, especially if it is not whole milk." That's because the fat content in whole milk can make heartburn worse. Skim milk is better.

If you suspect your heartburn is the result of eating too large a meal, though, swallowing additional foods or beverages may not be the best route to take. In that event, Dr. Gyawali suggests over-the-counter antacids. "Liquid antacid would probably be the fastest way to relieve it," he says.

Other steps you can take to prevent heartburn:

  • Don't lie down right after eating as this can cause stomach contents to come back up.
  • Remove any tight clothing that's putting pressure on your stomach.
  • Avoid aspirin and other anti-inflammatory pain medications known to cause heartburn.

Taking these precautions and sometimes using an antacid may be enough to deal with occasional heartburn. But if you start having heartburn more often or if it's severe, talk to your doctor. You may need some tests to find out if your heartburn is being caused by a medical condition.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
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