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What Causes Acid Reflux and How to Manage the Symptoms

Learn what causes acid reflux and how you can treat and manage this condition's uncomfortable symptoms.

A partial view of a young woman with her fist on her chest

Acid reflux can cause severe complications if you ignore it and don’t get proper treatment. So, what causes acid reflux, and how do we reduce or manage it? Read along as we discuss its causes, symptoms, and treatments. 

What Causes Acid Reflux?

Acid reflux is a condition that happens when stomach acid backs up into the oesophagus, leading to heartburn and other symptoms. This occurs because a muscle called the lower oesophagal sphincter (LES) has weakened or is functioning abnormally, causing acidic stomach contents to flow back up through the oesophagus. If acid reflux produces regular, chronic symptoms, the condition will transpire into gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD).

One of the medical causes of acid reflux is a hiatal hernia, which pushes the top portion of the stomach through a hole in the diaphragm where the oesophagus is located. This results in acid leaking up to the oesophagus.

Medical reasons aside, unhealthy lifestyle habits can also exacerbate acid reflux. For example:

  • pregnancy 
  • obesity  
  • medications 
  • smoking 
  • drinking alcohol 
  • eating too close to bedtime 
  • greasy, spicy, and acidic foods  
  • overeating 
  • stress and anxiety 

Acid Reflux Symptoms

A young woman sitting up on her bed while checking her breath 
Acid reflux gives you bad breath and a sour taste in the mouth.

While acid reflux symptoms can come and go, they share some common symptoms:  

  • a burning sensation in the chest 
  • sore throat, cough, and discomfort in the throat 
  • difficulty in swallowing 
  • sour or bitter taste in the mouth 
  • bad breath 
  • a hoarse voice – untreated acid reflux can also damage vocal cords 
  • symptoms that get worse after eating, when lying down, or when bending over 

Take note that heart attack and acid reflux symptoms can be quite similar. Therefore, consult a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. 

Treating Acid Reflux

Whether you have mild acid reflux or severe GERD, there are several ways to treat the condition. Here are three types of treatment to consider.

A young woman at a dining table, smiling as she takes a scoop of her salad
Eat in moderation to prevent acid reflux.

1. Lifestyle modifications  

Lifestyle changes are essential in preventing acid reflux symptoms from becoming more severe and turning into GERD. Ensure a healthy diet and avoid fried and sweet foods. Don’t skip meals but don’t overeat. It is ideal to stop eating three to four hours before bed.

Reduce alcohol, quit smoking, and find ways to manage stress. If symptoms get worse when you lie down, elevate the head of your bed to 10-20 cm. Make sure your head and chest are higher than your waist level so stomach acid won’t travel upward to your oesophagus, resulting in acid reflux.

2. Medication and surgery

Good lifestyle habits are usually the key to getting acid reflux symptoms under control. However, you can also take over-the-counter or prescription medicines to ease that burning sensation. In some cases, doctors may recommend surgery.

  • Antacids: for quick relief of mild or infrequent heartburns
  • Acid-suppressing medicines: consists of two groups – proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and histamine receptor blockers (H2 blockers), which reduce the amount of stomach acids in different ways.
  • Surgery: “keyhole” operation to tighten the lower oesophagus

3. TCM remedies  

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the aim of the treatment is not only to stop the occurrence of acid reflux but also to protect the stomach lining from further damage. Subsequently, the focus is to strengthen the stomach’s function.

According to TCM Physician Ng Qing Xiang from Eu Yan Sang Clinic, acid reflux is caused by an ascending stomach qi (vital life energy) that comes from stomach or liver imbalance. 

She recommends a few herbs to help remedy this condition, including xuan fu hua (inula flower), hai piao xiao (cuttlefish bone), and wa leng zi (cockle shell/ark shell).

As the spleen is closely related to the stomach, a traditional herbal formula like si jun zi tang and acupuncture can strengthen the function of both the stomach and spleen. You can also consider taking herbal pills containing indigestion-relieving ingredients. 

While Physician Ng says that natural herbs are mostly safe for everyone, it’s better to consult a professional before taking them. For example, pu gong yin (dandelion), which helps protect the stomach lining, is unsuitable for people with a weak spleen function because of its cooling nature.

Now that you know what causes acid reflux, you are better equipped to manage its symptoms. It all comes down to simple lifestyle changes like having balanced meals, work-life balance, and moderate alcohol consumption. If you notice any acid reflux symptoms surfacing, consult a doctor or TCM physician to get the right diagnosis and a proper treatment plan. 


  1. National Health Service. 2017. Heartburn and acid reflux [Accessed 8 November 2021]
  2. University Hospitals. 2020. Could Your Acid Reflux Actually Be a Hernia?  [Accessed 25 November 2021]
  3. Patient. 2020. Acid Reflux and Oesophagitis – Heartburn. [Accessed 25 November 2021]
  4. American College of Gastroenterology. Overview – Acid Reflux. [Accessed 25 November 2021]

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