In movies, whenever a character eats something spicy and they start fanning their mouth in pain, it’s inevitably followed by another action: Gulping a glass of milk. Many believe that drinking milk can do more than offer relief to on-fire tastebuds—it can also be a remedy for heartburn. Logically, this makes sense: Heartburn is also commonly triggered by spicy food. But is it a solution that acid reflux experts would endorse?
Complicating matters is the fact that many adults no longer drink cow’s milk, favoring an alternative like soy, almond or oat milk instead. It raises the question of if these substitutes could be used to help relieve heartburn in the same way that cow’s milk is commonly used. Here, two top acid reflux experts settle the debate for good.
Should you be asking “got milk?” every time you get heartburn? Keep reading to find out.
Does Milk Help Relieve Heartburn?
As a leading acid reflux expert and the author of Dropping Acid: The Reflux Diet Cookbook and Cure, Dr. Jamie Koufman, MD, gets asked a lot about heartburn cures—milk included. The same can be said for registered dietitian Lauren O’Connor, RD, also known as "the healing GERD dietitian." So, what’s their verdict on milk as a remedy? Both say it can help, at least temporarily.
Dr. Koufman explains that the reason why milk can offer immediate relief for heartburn is that it has a high pH level, which works to balance out the acidity of heartburn-causing foods. (Foods and drinks with a low pH are acidic while ones with a high pH are alkaline.) O’Connor says that the calcium and protein in milk are also reasons why it can help. “The high calcium content in milk can help because this mineral tightens the lower esophageal sphincter, preventing backflow of stomach acid,” she says. As for the protein, O’Connor explains that protein triggers gastrin secretion which helps with gastric emptying. But she adds that gastrin also elicits more stomach acid, which could trigger the burn.
While O’Connor says that milk may offer temporary relief, she says there’s not enough scientific evidence backing it up as a way to prevent or relieve recurring heartburn. Dr. Koufman co-signs this saying that if you experience heartburn frequently, you need more than short-term solutions. She recommends getting to the root causes of your symptoms by weeding out all acidic foods for two weeks and then slowly introducing them back in incrementally. Working with a gastroenterologist or registered dietitian who specializes in GERD can be beneficial to help with this.
What About Alternative Milks?
If you are going to use milk for immediate heartburn relief, O’Connor recommends going for a low-fat option, like skim or 1 percent. Whole milk, she says, is higher in fat, and it’s best to avoid fatty foods (and drinks) if you experience heartburn regularly.
Of course, this being 2022, there is no shortage of milk alternatives on the market, including soy, almond and oat. Can these options offer short-term relief from heartburn the same way that cow’s milk can? Dr. Koufman says that they can because, like cow’s milk, these alternatives have a high pH, meaning that they are not acidic.
When choosing an alternative milk with heartburn relief in mind, O’Connor says to choose one with a simple ingredients list and not with many additives or chemicals. This is because heavily processed foods and drinks are more likely to cause heartburn.
Here’s what won’t work for heartburn, according to the experts: Using your milk (or alt-milk) to make hot chocolate or a latte. Dr. Koufman says that the caffeine in coffee and chocolate is a heartburn trigger. So if you want to use milk to relieve heartburn, it’s best to drink it straight up.
The bottom line is that milk only offers temporary relief for heartburn. What’s more important is to identify and treat the root causes of your symptoms so that you don’t experience heartburn in the first place. It bears repeating that it can be extremely beneficial to work with an expert, such as a gastrointestinal doctor or GERD-specializing registered dietitian. That way, you can save your milk to be used in more enjoyable ways, like in your cereal and in creamy pasta sauce.