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Does Acid Reflux Cause Nausea?

Woman on couch holding stomach with pained expression

If you’re one of the 20% of Americans who suffer from acid reflux regularly,1 you’re probably looking to learn more about your symptoms and how to treat them.

The most common symptoms of acid reflux are things like upper abdominal pain, a burning in your chest, and a bitter taste in your mouth,1 but did you know about the lesser-known side effects of acid reflux like nausea and vomiting?

While acid reflux can cause nausea, there are still ways to find relief from this symptom.

What Causes Acid Reflux?

Acid reflux occurs when the acid in your stomach flows backwards into your esophagus. When you swallow, food passes from your mouth to your stomach via a tube called the esophagus. A ring of muscle fibers at the end of your esophagus — your lower esophageal sphincter — opens and closes to allow food to pass from your esophagus into your stomach.

Your esophageal sphincter is responsible for keeping the contents of your stomach separate from your esophagus and throat; if this muscle weakens or opens abnormally, then stomach acid can flow up into your esophagus and cause discomfort.2

Acid Reflux and Nausea

A study featuring ten patients with chronic nausea found that all ten of the patients’ nausea was a symptom of acid reflux. Six of the ten patients were found to have esophageal problems, and of those six patients, most of their episodes of nausea (32 out of 33) were accompanied by acid reflux.3 However, people with gastroesophageal reflux disease don’t usually report experiencing intractable nausea; it is an atypical symptom.

How to Relieve Nausea

If you’re feeling nauseated from acid reflux, there are tips you can implement to help relieve your nausea or stop it from getting worse, such as:4

  • Rest: not getting enough rest combined with too much activity can make nausea worse.
  • Stay hydrated: sipping on beverages like water and tea can keep you hydrated and relieve nausea.
  • Eat bland foods: if you’re struggling to keep food down, try eating bland foods that are easy to digest, such as gelatin, toast, or crackers. When you’re feeling better, you can start to re-incorporate different food groups.
  • Try a motion sickness medicine: if you need to travel to the doctor or elsewhere while nauseated, you might want to take an OTC motion sickness medicine before leaving.
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages: coffee and other caffeinated drinks can contribute to stomach upset.5

Acid Reflux and Nausea While Pregnant

Acid reflux and nausea are very common ailments people experience during pregnancy, and studies show that 80% of pregnancies are accompanied by symptoms of acid reflux.6 This is probably caused by the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy, because the increase in maternal estrogen and progesterone during pregnancy affect the lower esophageal sphincter.

A recent study suggests that pregnant women with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition that causes a patient to experience frequent or severe acid reflux, also experience more severe nausea and vomiting.6

Lifestyle changes are usually the first defense against acid reflux during pregnancy.

How to Manage Acid Reflux

Since there is a link between acid reflux and nausea, learning how to manage your acid reflux could help reduce the frequency and severity of your bouts of nausea.

Trigger Foods

Try to avoid foods that trigger your acid reflux. Everyone’s trigger foods will be different, but there are foods that commonly trigger acid reflux in patients, such as:7,8

  • Tomato products like ketchup
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Citrus fruit and juice
  • Caffeinated drinks like coffee and soda
  • Fatty foods like bacon or sausage
  • Onions
  • Mint or peppermint
  • Chocolate
  • Fried food
  • Fast food
  • Processed food
  • Spicy food
  • Cheese

Lifestyle Changes

Managing your acid reflux over time will help lessen your related symptoms like nausea. Try incorporating some of these habits into your daily routine to help reduce instances of acid reflux:8.9

  • Maintain a healthy weight: excess weight puts pressure on your stomach, which encourages acid to flow into your esophagus.
  • Wear loose clothing: clothing that fits tightly around your mid-section also puts pressure on your stomach and makes it harder to digest.
  • Avoid smoking and alcohol: nicotine and alcohol weaken your lower esophageal valve over time and cause acid reflux.
  • Avoid late meals: wait at least three hours after your last meal before going to bed.
  • Elevate the head of your bed: keeping your heart over your feet while you lie down will make it harder for acid to backup into your esophagus.
  • Eat slowly: chewing your food thoroughly and taking breaks in-between bites will make digestion easier and prevent acid reflux.
  • Sleep on your left side: sleeping on the left is better for your digestion.

Don’t exercise after meals: Moderate exercise has been shown to help acid reflux, but try to wait at least two hours after eating before exercising. 

Source Citations:

  1. GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease). Michigan Medicine. https://www.uofmhealth.org/conditions-treatments/digestive-and-liver-health/gerd-gastroesophageal-reflux-disease.
  2. Gastroesophageal reflux disease. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000265.htm.
  3. RJ Brzana, KL Koch. Gastroesophageal reflux disease presenting with intractable nausea. Annals of Internal Medicine. May 1997. 126(9):704-7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9139556/.
  4. Nausea and vomiting When to see a doctor. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/nausea/basics/when-to-see-doctor/sym-20050736.
  5. Chronic Nausea Causes. Stanford Health Care. https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/digestion-and-metabolic-health/chronic-nausea/treatments.html.
  6. Treatment of heartburn and acid reflux associated with nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. The Official Publication of the Family Physicians of Canada. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2821234/#b1-0560143.
  7. Heartburn: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9617-heartburn-overview.
  8. GERD Diet: Foods That Help with Acid Reflux (Heartburn). Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/gerd-diet-foods-that-help-with-acid-reflux-heartburn.
  9. Heartburn - Diagnosis and treatment. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heartburn/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20373229.