It is possible for a person to experience heartburn on an empty stomach. Certain eating habits may affect a person’s likelihood of experiencing heartburn, including not eating.

Heartburn is a burning sensation or discomfort in the chest, just behind the breastbone. Typically, the cause of heartburn is acid from the stomach traveling up the stomach and into the esophagus. Healthcare professionals call this process acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux (GER). The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach.

If a person frequently experiences GER, they may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and therefore experience heartburn more regularly. GERD has a prevalence of about 20% in the United States.

This article explores whether there is a link between eating habits and heartburn, the symptoms of GERD, tips for managing heartburn, and when a person should contact a doctor.

Compostable plates, cups, and forks over a light blue background 1Share on Pinterest
Maryna Terletska/Getty Images

Some research suggests that a person’s eating habits may affect when GERD symptoms appear. The study authors note that eating large meals, eating meals before bedtime, and irregular eating patterns may be a risk factor for experiencing GERD symptoms.

They also highlighted that certain lifestyle factors, such as smoking and lack of physical activity, may contribute to GERD symptoms. Additionally, they noted that many studies suggest certain foods and beverages may trigger GERD symptoms.

Similarly, a 2019 review notes that certain foods and drinks in the diet may increase a person’s risk of experiencing GERD symptoms. These include:

The review authors also found that certain eating behaviors — for example, eating at night or eating large or calorie-dense meals — may increase stomach acid production and cause the stomach to distend, resulting in GERD symptoms such as heartburn.

Similarly, if a person does not eat for a long period of time, acid may build up in the stomach in preparation for digesting the next meal. This may cause hunger pains and contribute to GERD symptoms such as heartburn.

Learn more about foods to eat and avoid with GERD and acid reflux.

In addition to heartburn, a person with GERD may also experience the following symptoms:

A person may find that the following actions may help improve their heartburn:

  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) medication, such as antacids
  • avoiding eating meals 3 hours before going to bed
  • elevating the head end of the bed or using extra pillows to raise the head when sleeping
  • speaking with a doctor about limiting certain foods and drinks that may trigger heartburn, such as:
    • acidic foods
    • chocolate
    • anything containing caffeine
    • spicy foods

A variety of treatment options are available for a person with GERD. A healthcare professional may recommend different treatments for different people, depending on the severity of their GERD symptoms and other factors. Treatment options may include:

A person should consult a medical professional if they believe they may have GERD or if the symptoms of GERD do not improve with treatment, such as heartburn not going away.

Additionally, a person should speak with a doctor if they experience:

A person will only know for certain that they have GERD or another condition with similar symptoms after a healthcare professional provides a diagnosis.

Heartburn is a burning sensation or discomfort a person feels in their chest. It often occurs after eating a meal. A person who experiences frequent heartburn may have GERD.

A person may experience heartburn due to irregular eating habits or eating close to bedtime. Similarly, a person may experience heartburn from not eating for a long time due to acid buildup in the stomach.

Other symptoms of GERD may include pain while swallowing, nausea, and difficulty swallowing.

A person should contact a doctor if they experience GERD symptoms for a prolonged period or if heartburn does not resolve. Treatments for GERD may include taking OTC or prescription medication, lifestyle changes, or surgery.