Heartburn, or acid reflux, is a common problem. More than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month, and more than 15 million people feel it daily. If you have regular heartburn that doesn’t go away, or continues in spite of treatment with acid reflux remedies, you could have a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease—(GERD).

The roughly one in five adults in America who have GERD may brush the condition off as simple indigestion, but it can develop into more serious issues. It may also be the cause of other problems you are having, like headaches.

Find out how GERD is linked to headaches, and what you can do to treat them.

Recent studies are increasingly linking GERD and headaches, but some questions remain on why exactly this happens. Headaches or migraines are associated with a number of gastrointestinal conditions. These include:

Studies suggest that between 30 and 50 percent of people with chronic headaches or migraines also have GERD. Researchers are still trying to pinpoint which comes first, and whether GERD and headaches exist together, or if one causes the other.

Theories about why gastrointestinal disorders and headaches are linked include increased sensitivity to pain in the body, specifically in the parasympathetic system. This is the part of the autonomic nervous system that senses and functions without you thinking about it.

Autonomic nervous system malfunction has been linked to both GERD and migraines, and could contribute to the development of either — or both — conditions. Food allergies, medications, and even serotonin levels are also common threads between both headache and reflux, and could play a role in connection between the two.

We’ve already covered the link between GERD and headaches, but did you know that dizziness can occur with both, too? Migraines or severe headaches have been linked to dizziness for a long time, but there is new evidence that GERD can contribute to this problem.

Acid reflux and GERD occur when stomach acid bubbles up from the opening between the stomach and the esophagus. When the acid reaches the esophagus, it causes irritation or a burning sensation. In some cases, this backflow of stomach acids can even reach the eustachian tubes in your throat.

They connect to your inner ear. The ear plays a large role in balance, and disruptions to the pressure in your ear —especially with stomach acid — can cause dizziness.

GERD and acid reflux have also been linked to shortness of breath because of irritation and swelling in the airway. Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is a major contributor to dizziness and loss of consciousness.

More evidence has emerged in recent years about the link between gut health — sometimes called your gut microbiota — and your overall health. Ideally, every system in the body is balanced. When one is not, there can be a cascade of effects in areas that you wouldn’t think are linked.

When you suffer from recurring acid reflux, sleeping can be difficult because acid moves up your throat easier when you are lying down. Headache pain and acid reflux can affect your sleep, and can lead to symptoms of chronic fatigue.

Unusual GERD symptoms

You may think that GERD is just heartburn, but there are a number of symptoms that you might be surprised are linked to this condition. These include:

  • burping
  • difficulty of pain with swallowing
  • excessive saliva
  • the feeling that food is stuck in your throat
  • chronic sore throat
  • hoarseness
  • laryngitis
  • inflammation of the gums
  • a sour taste in your mouth
  • bad breath
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It can be difficult — even for doctors — to differentiate whether you’re having a headache because of acid reflux, GERD, or one of the many other causes of headache.

Treating the root cause rather than symptoms one by one is a whole philosophy in medicine. You can take medicine to treat headache pain, or you can treat what’s causing it. In the case of headaches linked to GERD, people who effectively treat their acid reflux have noticed a decrease in headaches.

There are a number of remedies that you can try to improve your acid reflux at home. Keeping GERD under control can help stem other symptoms related to the condition, like headaches.

Limiting alcohol, tobacco

Smoking and alcohol consumption can all make acid reflux worse. Making changes to your lifestyle that remove them can help you keep GERD under control. If you drink or smoke, quitting can be difficult, but a doctor can help create a cessation plan that works for you.

Sleeping positions

How you sleep has a big impact on acid reflux. Avoid eating large meals before you go to bed or late-night snacks, and keep your head elevated while sleeping. Using extra pillows or wedge pillows, or risers to elevate the head of your bed, can all help reduce acid reflux. Lying on your left side while you sleep may also improve gut health.

Moderate exercise

Exercise is always a good thing, but how you exercise may have an impact on acid reflux. Strenuous exercises like weightlifting or crunches can actually make your reflux worse and aggravate GERD. Opt for moderate or low-impact exercises to get the benefits of your workout without aggravating GERD.

Dietary changes

How and what you eat may be one of the biggest changes to relieve acid reflux. Decrease the amount of the following foods, which can make GERD and acid reflux worse:

  • fried foods
  • too much salt
  • foods that are high in fat or acid

Keep track of what foods aggravate your condition the most and work to reduce or eliminate them from your diet.

There are a number of medications that a doctor may suggest beyond lifestyle changes to get acid reflux or GERD under control.

Acid-controlling medications

Medications that control the amount of acid your stomach produces, or that help to neutralize that acid, are often used to treat acid reflux and GERD. These include:

Headache medications

Medications like acetaminophen — even prescription migraine treatments — may be needed to control your headaches. If your headaches are being caused by acid reflux, controlling that may help reduce your headaches.

Speak with a doctor about the best headache treatment for you. Too much acetaminophen can be toxic, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen may irritate the stomach even more.

Review other medications

Speak with a doctor if you experience frequent acid reflux or headaches. A number of medications can cause headaches or stomach upset. Don’t stop any regular prescription medications without talking your doctor first.

It can be difficult for a doctor to know when occasional indigestion has progressed to GERD. If the remedies above do not relieve your symptoms, see a doctor.

Seek immediate help if you become severely short of breath, or notice blood in your cough, vomit, or stool.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There is a reason this saying is so well-known. Making dietary and lifestyle changes to reduce acid reflux is the best way to control both GERD and headaches. Some prevention strategies include:

  • weight loss
  • a healthy diet that avoids acidic foods, fatty or fried foods, and alcohol
  • light to moderate exercise
  • elevating the head of your bed
  • avoiding eating before you lie down
  • reducing stress and inflammation

A healthy diet isn’t just about avoiding certain foods, though. Some foods and compounds are believed to help reduce acid reflux, like:

  • vegetables
  • oatmeal
  • ginger
  • non-citrus fruits
  • lean meats
  • seafood
  • egg whites
  • healthy fats
  • turmeric

Acid reflux and GERD can cause serious health issues, and a host of symptoms you might not normally connect to you gastrointestinal health — like headaches.

Lifestyle changes that focus on low-impact exercise and a healthy diet, as well as medications that help you control acid production in your stomach, can all help reduce headaches caused by acid reflux or GERD.