Milk has long been considered an effective home remedy for acid reflux, but does it really work? When the churning and burning symptoms of acid reflux strike, it can be tempting to grab a tall glass of cool milk straight from the fridge. Many find milk immediately soothing. But is milk actually helpful or does it make acid reflux worse in the long run? The answer overturns what many think and believe about acid reflux, and its cause. This article will outline the surprising root cause of acid reflux, and thus reveal whether or not milk, and other remedies like popping antacids, are the best remedies to relieve the troublesome burning sensations.
A common misconception is that acid reflux results from too much acid in the stomach, called hyperacidity. Many are shocked to learn that, usually, the real cause of most acid reflux is scanty, insufficient acids! Acid deficiency is a condition called hypoacidity. Here’s why acid deficiency causes more acid reflux:
Hypoacidity is associated with slow, heavy digestion. As a person ages, the acid producing cells of the stomach start to die off, a process called atrophy that leads to weak stomach acid production. Dehydration also contributes to low acid production. When stomach acids are weak or deficient, food sits in the stomach fora long time, partially undigested. This called food stagnation. The longer these stagnant foods sit and churn in the stomach, they more they tend to regurgitate. In regurgitation, also known as reflux, food backs up through the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and into the esophagus. Previously mixed with acid and pepsin in the stomach, the regurgitating food causes the uncomfortable heartburn as the acid damages and irritates the esophagus.
Thus, it is not the hypersecretion of acid in the stomach that usually irritates the esophagus, but the regurgitation of acidic food up into the esophagus. This regurgitation happens more frequently when foods sits in the stomach too long.
Alternatively, some people have acid reflux because of a “leaky” valve at the top of the stomach called a hiatal hernia. With these three types in mind, hyperacidity, hypoacidity, and hiatal hernia, let’s find out whether milk and antacids are a good choice for acid reflux.
So is milk a friend or foe in acid reflux? Although milk provides quick, soothing relief in the moment, studies show that milk also increases stomach acid production soon after the effect wears off, making hyperacidity worse. What about antacids? Here, antacids are beneficial as they suppress hypersecretion of acids. However, antacids do not treat the cause of hypersecretion.
Let’s consider the case for hypoacidity. In Ayurveda, milk is heavy, cold, gooey and sweet. These qualities (gunas) build the mucous membrane in the stomach and reduce inflammation, which can be a good thing. They also buffer (reduce) the action of acids in the stomach, causing food to sit longer. This is bad news for folks with hypoacidity and food stagnation, the most common form of acid reflux. For those with hypoacidity, milk just makes your stomach work harder against the mucus. If you drink a big glass of milk during an acid reflux attack or take an antacid, any relief it brings is likely to be short lived. Instead of fixing the problem, both milk and antacids compound the problem because they destroy what little acid you have.
The situation is even worse if the milk is cold from the fridge. Cold liquids cause constriction in the digestive tract and shut down blood flow to digestive organs. This lack of blood flow reduces the energy your stomach needs to breakdown food and then the food sits stagnant.
Modern milk is even harder to digest because of pasteurization and homogenization. Pasteurization (cooking the milk) destroys natural enzymes in the milk that help you digest it. Homogenization breaks up all the cream in the milk into microscopic particles which irritate the lining of the digestive tract. The difficulty of digesting cow milk is likely to increase food stagnation and therefore acid reflux as well.
What about hiatal hernia? The fats in milk have been shown to relax the LES valve, breaking the seal and making it more likely your food will regurgitate upwards. Thus, we conclude that for hyperacidity, hypoacidity, and hiatal hernia, milk is problematic despite the short term feeling of relief.
You might be wondering, “Why do doctors prescribe antacids even though hypoacidity and hiatal hernia are the most common causes of acid reflux?” Doctors recommend antacids to prevent erosion and damage to your esophagus. And, antacids can help reduce inflammation around the LES valve. With swelling and inflammation reduced, LES function improves and that can bring long term prevention. Even when antacids do not fix the problem, preventing damage to your esophagus remains important. Esophageal cancer is common and life threatening. Check with your doctor to determine whether antacid or any of the remedies below are right for you.
Even if you take antacids for acute heartburn, take steps to remove the underlying cause. While you may think acid reflux is just another annoying symptom, easily abated with an antacid, Ayurveda views it as a much deeper imbalance. Left unchecked, acid reflux can cause more serious digestive complications.
Instead of grabbing some milk, consider these home remedies to stop acid reflux naturally. Reach for some pomegranate juice instead of milk. Cooling and astringent, pomegranate juice soothes burning irritation leaving you feeling refreshed and comfortable. Juice from a wedge of lemon offers surprisingly quick, short term relief for all forms of acid reflux, with very few side effects.
For acid reflux due to hypoacidity, sip a cup of ginger and fennel tea to improve digestion and acid output. The spicey qualities of ginger and the aromatic qualities of fennel will stimulate acid production and break up acid blocking mucus. Aromatics also accelerate gastric emptying of the stomach, clearing food stagnation. Bitter orange peel is considered one of the most effective aromatic herbs for clearing food stagnation.
For hiatal hernia, avoid smoking, alcohol, dairy, and aromatic herbs (like peppermint) that relax the LES. Follow the tips on our hiatal hernia page.
While you may want immediate relief from your reflux, prevention is always better than a cure. If you have hyperacidity – treat the cause, which is usually stress or inflammation related. For long-term management and prevention of hyperacidity reflux, follow a diet of stress and intense emotions which can increase Pitta dosha and acidity.
For hypoacidity, at your next meal, eat easy to digest foods such as soups. Easy to digest foods ensure that food stagnation and churning will be minimal. A kitchari cleanse is also useful to help reset digestion, clear out food stagnation and rev up your digestive fire (build agni).
To heal irritated tissues of your gut, try bone broth. The amino acids present in bone broth such as cysteine, histidine and glycine are known to reduce gut inflammation. Avipattikar churna promotes balanced acid levels in the stomach. Serenity Acid Reflux Tea is both anti-inflammatory and helps move food through the GI tract.
The most common cause of acid reflux is not hypersecretion of acids. Deficient secretion, called hypoacidity, is far more common. Milk, though soothing, aggravates acid reflux in all types. Antacids aren’t categorically deemed “good” or “bad” for acid reflux in Ayurveda, and its status as a remedy changes depending on the person, type of acid reflux, and risk of damage to the esophagus.
Instead of turning to milk every time you have a burning sensation, Ayurveda offers other effective home remedies, depending on the root cause of your reflux. While there are options to avail immediate relief, prevention is always better than a cure, so implementing a diet and lifestyle for long-term management is also essential.