To Bee or Not to Bee: Honey Is Not-So-Sweet for GERD Relief

Eating honey may actually trigger acid reflux symptoms.
Image Credit: Shaiith/iStock/GettyImages

You may have heard that honey is the bee's knees when it comes to soothing acid reflux. But, despite these claims that honey can coat and soothe your esophagus when gastric juices flow up, science says not so fast. Honey may not be the acid reflux remedy you thought it could be.

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"I am not familiar with any research on honey having a soothing effect on gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)," says Hannah Kittrell, RD, CDN, Physiolab manager and clinical research associate at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

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In fact, Kittrell says, by eating honey, you could be actually making things worse for you and your esophagus.

"Honey is a simple sugar, meaning it is easy for our body to digest," Kittrell says. "Sugars such as this cause a rapid increase in blood sugar, which produces an osmotic effect, pulling water into the gastrointestinal tract. Excess water being pulled into the GI tract quickly could actually trigger acid reflux symptoms."

Read more:The Dos and Don'ts of Eating With GERD

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Why It Doesn’t Work

Julie Stefanski, RDN, LDN, registered dietitian and nutritionist, and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics in York, Pennsylvania, has heard an argument in favor of honey for acid reflux.

Some say honey can be used to soothe irritation from gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) because it is high in antioxidants, she says. (Per Mayo Clinic, antioxidants are substances that stop free radicals from causing cell damage.)

"People probably picture the honey connecting right with the tissue as you swallow it and it reducing the stress of the damage," Stefanski says. "But that's not how antioxidants work. The body would use antioxidants ​after​ digesting them in the small intestine."

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If Not Honey, What Can Help?

Got (nonfat) milk? Like honey, milk is often linked with heartburn relief. But it really depends on what kind of milk you're drinking, Johns Hopkins Medicine says.

The fat in milk can aggravate your reflux, Hopkins states, but nonfat milk can have soothing properties for your reflux. Without fat, this milk variety could provide a buffer between the lining of your stomach and its acidic contents, giving you immediate — albeit temporary — sweet relief.

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Stefanski agrees that low-fat dairy products (including yogurt) may be a soothing alternative for your reflux.

And, she says, like the fat in milk, collectively, high-fat foods can often trigger reflux symptoms due to both the time it takes to digest them and the amount of stomach acid and enzymes needed to break these foods down.

Fiber Is Also a Good Idea

High-fiber foods are another option. Why they work is unknown, Kittrell says. However, the thinking is that these foods fill you up and keep you fuller longer, so you eat less — because overeating can be a cause of acid reflux, she says.

Johns Hopkins recommends filling your shopping cart with these high-fiber foods for reflux relief:

  • Whole grains (oatmeal, couscous, brown rice).
  • Root vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, beets).
  • Green vegetables (asparagus, broccoli, green beans).

“Bee” Yourself

Remember that what works for you may not work for your friend or relative with GERD. "Dietary management of GERD is very individualized," Kittrell says. She says that's why it may be helpful to keep a diary about what you eat, when you eat and how you feel after eating. "It is wise to avoid foods that cause unpleasant symptoms for you, but different foods will trigger symptoms in different individuals," Kittrell says.

If your GERD is constant and bothersome, your doctor may prescribe medication to help keep it at bay, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

You can also make lifestyle changes that can help considerably, Kittrell says, including:

  • Eating slowly and relaxing around mealtime.
  • Chewing your food well.
  • Not eating too close to bedtime (allow 2 to 3 hours before bed for digestion).
  • Staying upright for at least one hour after eating.
  • Sleeping on an incline if nighttime symptoms are an issue for you.
  • Not exercising immediately after meals.

These changes should help decrease the frequency and severity of acid reflux attacks, Kittrell says. But if you still have heartburn after eating, "the most direct way to reduce negative symptoms is to take over-the-counter antacids," she says.

Read more:How to Build a Healthy Diet to Tame Acid Reflux Symptoms

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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