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Swimming and Acid Reflux: Does Swimming Trigger Heartburn ?

a woman is swimming under water. Swimming triggers acid reflux

The short answer to the question asked in the title is; unfortunately, yes. You can get heartburn during and after swimming if you have acid reflux disease.

However, we need to clarify one thing. Although swimming is a potential heartburn trigger, it doesn’t cause you to develop acid reflux disease. That means;

  • If you are a healthy person who normally doesn’t experience heartburn or other acid reflux symptoms, then you have nothing to worry about, because swimming won’t cause you to develop acid reflux disease.
  • However, if you are prone to heartburn, then you may experience a burning sensation in your chest during and after swimming.

If you usually experience heartburn while swimming, you should know it is (most likely) not a coincidence. Swimming might be triggering acid reflux symptoms, such as heartburn, in you.

The notion that swimming is harming your body (by triggering heartburn) can make you a bit confused. After all, as we all know swimming is associated with various health benefits.

Well, it is important to underline the fact that swimming is not the only form of exercise that could trigger heartburn. Other healthy sports as well, such as cycling, jumping rope, weightlifting or running can give you heartburn (1).

On this website, we already published a comprehensive article that explains the positive correlation between “running and acid reflux” from every angle.

Now, you may want to ask some questions like;

  • What causes heartburn while swimming?
  • Should I stop swimming as it gives me heartburn?
  • Is there a way to prevent acid reflux while swimming?

Before providing science-based answers to these questions, we should briefly talk about acid reflux disease (GERD). This is because without understanding acid reflux properly, we won’t comprehend how swimming affects acid reflux.

Acid Reflux & GERD

Acid reflux is typically defined as a burning sensation in the chest area, which happens when stomach acid flows back into the throat (2).

Since it causes a burning feeling, it is also called heartburn by many people. In fact, heartburn is only one symptom of acid reflux disease. There are also other symptoms like hiccups, nausea, hoarseness or coughing.

So how does stomach acid flows back into the food pipe and cause a burning sensation?

Under normal circumstances, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) — the valve-like muscle at the lower end of the food pipe — prevents stomach acid from travelling up towards the throat (3).

However, this valve-like muscle (LES) sometimes doesn’t close tight enough when it should, allowing stomach acid to flow back up into the food pipe, causing heartburn (4).

Everyone experiences acid reflux at some point. However, some experience it frequently and regularly.

When acid reflux happens more than twice a week over a period of several weeks, it is called GERD, which stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease (5).

 

Swimming and Acid Reflux

Now that, we have understood what acid reflux is and learnt the relevant terms like GERD, LES and heartburn, we are ready to explore the positive correlation between swimming and acid reflux.

Before we start though, it bears repeating that not only swimming but also other strenuous exercises such as weightlifting, cycling and running can trigger heartburn (6).

 

What Causes Heartburn During or After Swimming?

So, why does a person with acid reflux have more chance of having heartburn while swimming? How does swimming trigger acid reflux?

We have compiled a couple of direct and indirect factors that increase the risk of having heartburn during swimming. Please keep on reading to find out.

 

1-) Increased Abdominal Pressure

While swimming, especially in the prone position, the pressure on your abdomen increases naturally. And, this increased pressure on your stomach forces stomach contents to travel up towards the food pipe, leading to heartburn, according to United States Masters Swimmers (7).

In fact, increased abdominal pressure perfectly explains why people with acid reflux disease experience heartburn more often while performing strenuous physical exercise, such as sprinting, running or weightlifting.

When the pressure on your abdomen increases for any reason ( in our case due to exercise ) the LES muscle may not close tightly. And, that in turn can allow stomach contents to flow back into the food pipe (8),(9).

( As explained above; LES is the valve-like muscle that prevents stomach acid from flowing back into the food pipe).

For instance; pregnant women and obese people have a huge risk of getting heartburn frequently due to excess abdominal pressure.

The growing baby in the mother’s womb generates abdominal pressure, forcing the stomach contents towards the throat. And, that makes heartburn very common in pregnancy (10),(11).

Similarly, obese or overweight people also carry a risk of having heartburn owing to excess belly fat that increases intra-abdominal pressure (12),(13).

These examples clearly explain the role of abdominal pressure in acid reflux. As the nature of many sports, such as swimming; abdominal pressure increases and that, in turn, can enhance the risk of having heartburn.

 

2-) Gravity Factor

If you get heartburn frequently, that means your LES ( valve-like muscle ) often doesn’t close as tightly as it should. Unfortunately, that makes you prone to heartburn.

However, even at the times that the LES doesn’t close tightly, you can avoid heartburn if you are sitting or standing thanks to the gravity that holds stomach acid where it belongs.

But, while swimming (particularly in the prone position) the stomach content is no longer being kept in the stomach by gravity. And, that can cause acid reflux if the LES doesn’t close tightly.

The gravity factor is also the main reason why heartburn is more likely to occur at night while lying down or sleeping (14).

 

Other Factors Contributing to Acid Reflux While Swimming

Thus far, we have counted two factors; 1- increased abdominal pressure and 2- gravity ( changing body position ) that potentially increase the risk of having heartburn during swimming.

However, there are other factors that can increase your chance of experiencing heartburn while swimming. Let’s look at these contributing factors…

 

What You Eat

Sometimes the reason that people have heartburn or feel a bitter taste in the back of their throat during swimming is not because of the increased abdominal pressure, but because of the foods or drinks, they consumed prior to swimming. That indicates; depending on what you eat before swimming, you can get heartburn while swimming.

So, what are the particular foods and drinks that can increase your risk of having heartburn while swimming? According to the American Gastroenterological Association (15):

  • Fried or fatty foods
  • Chocolate.
  • Coffee (including decaf).
  • Carbonated drinks.
  • Tomatoes and tomato products
  • Citrus fruits or juices.
  • Peppermint.

can increase the risk of having heartburn. So, think twice before consuming these particular foods before diving into the water.

 

When You Eat

Above we have given a couple of food names that are suggested to increase the risk of having heartburn. However, another important factor that many people fail to notice is when they eat before swimming.

If you eat a big meal before swimming, then you should know you are more likely to have acid reflux regardless of what you have eaten.

According to Livestrong; swimming with a full stomach increases the risk of acid reflux (16).

 

Wearing Tight Swimsuit

It may be hard to believe, but even your swimsuit might be the culprit if you almost always get heartburn during swimming! Here is how…

If your swimsuit is super-tight just like specially-designed swimsuits that squeeze the body, you may experience heartburn. Because too tight swimsuits can increase abdominal pressure significantly.

As we mentioned above, as the nature of the sport; swimming increases abdominal pressure. So, if your swimsuit is too tight on your abdomen, it further increases the pressure on your stomach, forcing the stomach acid to move towards your mouth.

Bear in mind that, not only tight swimsuits but also daily clothes that exert pressure on your abdomen can increase the risk of experiencing acid reflux. Therefore, medical experts often recommend people with GERD avoid wearing tight clothes (17),(18).

 

Energy and Sport Drinks

Another potential acid reflux trigger is energy and sports drinks. In fact, they are designed to replenish water and electrolytes lost during physical activity (19).

However, due to some substances available in many sports drinks, these beverages can trigger heartburn in people with acid reflux disease.

As per studies and medical experts; energy drinks, due to their high amount of caffeine and sugar, may lead to acid reflux during and after swimming (20),(21),(22).

So, if you always consume sports drinks that are, in general, high in caffeine and sugar and often experience acid reflux while swimming, consider avoiding these beverages before and during the exercise to figure out whether or not they are the culprit that gives you heartburn while swimming.

 

Should You Give Up Swimming As it Triggers Heartburn?

Swimming offers a variety of health benefits, especially to your heart. Therefore, giving up swimming due to the risk of acid reflux and converting to a sedentary life can be a mistake that leads to more serious health conditions.

If you almost always experience acid reflux during or right after swimming, then it is best for you to talk to your doctor to find out the underlying causes. Your doctor can even prescribe a medicine that can prevent you from getting heartburn while swimming.

We compiled a couple of effective heartburn prevention methods while swimming. These methods may help you avoid heartburn during swimming.

 

Effective Methods to Prevent Heartburn While Swimming

1-) If you always swim in a prone position and have heartburn, then consider switching your swimming style, for instance to backstroke. And, monitor your symptoms to see if there is any improvement in terms of acid reflux.

2-) Learn to inhale and exhale slowly while swimming. By doing so, you can decrease the pressure on your abdomen. Furthermore, turn your head to the side to take a breath during every swimming stroke, according to Livestrong (16).

3-) As mentioned; eating big meals before swimming significantly increases the risk of acid reflux while swimming. So, the solution is easy; avoid big meals before swimming.

4-) Doing physical exercise within two hours of eating can lead to heartburn (23). So, make sure to eat 2-3 hours prior to swimming. 

5-) Try to avoid wearing a super-tight swimsuit as it can increase abdominal pressure. So opt for a swimsuit that is easy on your abdomen.

6-) Exercising on a full stomach can increase the risk of heartburn. But, conversely exercising on an empty stomach as well can cause heartburn, according to Jeffrey Fine, MD, (24). Just make sure you have something in your stomach during swimming.

7-) Eating too fast may trigger acid reflux not only while swimming but also during the day (25). So, make sure you chew thoroughly and eat slowly to prevent heartburn during swimming.

8- ) Above we have counted some foods that are more likely to trigger acid reflux. So, avoid consuming these foods before swimming may help you swim without experiencing heartburn.