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Does Drinking Milk Relieve Acid Reflux?

By Stu Leo︱Published May 7, 2022

Does Milk Relieve Acid Reflux or Heartburn?

Does drinking milk relieve acid reflux? It actually depends on what type of reflux you have. If your main symptom is heartburn, then you most likely have typical GERD, and if that’s the case, the answer to your question is—maybe.

Allow me to explain.

I say maybe because currently, there isn’t much evidence that shows us how milk can help with reflux, But in the 1970s when acid-suppressing drugs were not yet available, doctors DID recommend milk for patients who suffered from stomach ulcers and heartburn.

In fact, one study done in 1976 noted that milk had a temporary “buffering effect, neutralizing gastric acid for only 20 minutes,” but sixty minutes after drinking milk, the pH level of subjects went back to normal.

So when you hear people claiming that “milk helps with heartburn,” that’s where that comes from. It’s an outdated method, but it may help some people because the pH of milk is pretty neutral.

There is one more caveat though:

If milk triggers acid reflux for you(it does for many), then obviously drinking milk will NOT relieve your heartburn.

I know this can be confusing, but at the end of the day, different people may respond differently to different foods. Milk may relieve YOUR heartburn, and at the same time, cause reflux in someone else.

Take this study from the Korea University Guro Hospital for example. Researchers found that milk was a trigger food for only 50% of their GERD patients, but the other 50% had no problems with milk whatsoever.

Here’s the entire chart of interesting foods tested in the study that were found to also trigger GERD symptoms:

Dairy Heartburn and Acid Reflux Foods Table

What If I don’t get heartburn, but just LPR and throat symptoms?

Now on the other hand, if your symptoms are a sore throat and/or hoarseness, then you may have what’s called laryngopharyngeal reflux(LPR for short and classified as atypical GERD). In this case, drinking milk may momentarily relieve your symptoms by coating your throat with more mucus.

Unfortunately, in my experience, these effects usually wear off after an hour or so.

Here’s a better solution for throat soreness:

If you haven’t already—why not try Throat Coat? I talk about this a lot so I won’t go into detail here, but Throat Coat is basically the shining beacon of hope and light for singers and speakers all around the world who deal with vocal issues. Much better than drinking cow’s milk—I’d say.

KEY TAKEAWAY

Drinking milk in the short term may relieve acid reflux symptoms for some people, but the evidence for this is slim and the science is outdated.

But what about the long term? Will drinking milk improve your health and GERD symptoms in the long term?

Read on for details…

Should You Drink Milk Regularly If You Have GERD?

The answer is probably not because the studies on dairy don’t look too promising for long-term health.

As a matter of fact, consumption of dairy has been linked directly to esophagitis(esophagus inflammation) and can also be linked indirectly to Barrett’s Esophagus and cancer.

Let’s begin with esophagitis.

1. Dairy and Eosinophilic Esophagitis 

Multiple studies have found that dairy is directly linked to a certain kind of esophagitis called eosinophilic esophagitis(known as EoE).

EoE is basically inflammation of the lower esophagus due to harmful stimuli getting into the body. This causes a large concentration of white blood cells to “infiltrate” the lower esophagus in a bid to get rid of harmful stimuli.

EoE typically looks something like this:

Eosinophilic Esophagitis Dairy Milk Acid Reflux GERD

This is what EoE looks like. You get unnormal rings in the lower esophagus area which in healthy people is smooth. Photo courtesy of Dr. Grossi et al.   

EoE often causes such symptoms as pain, heartburn, vomiting, and difficulty swallowing. If left untreated, EoE could potentially worsen into something more sinister.

Classic treatment for EoE calls for PPIs(proton pump inhibitors), but did you know that avoiding dairy can actually heal EoE completely?

Here’s a study from researchers at Northwestern University saying so:

EoE Healed with Dairy Elimination

And another one from a major children’s hospital in Chicago that observed a REVERSAL of EoE in 65% of their children patients who cut out dairy:

Elimination of Cows Milk Heals Esophagitis

And there are many other diet elimination studies out there confirming the same thing. We don’t understand it completely, but there just seems to be something about dairy, that for some reason, inflames the lower esophagus in many people.

Some have argued that EoE is simply an allergic reaction. But the problem with this theory is that EoE rates are rising sharply all over the world.

Why are more and more people getting “allergies” that inflame their esophagus? Aren’t allergies passed down? If so, how can they rise sharply? It doesn’t make sense.

I think unhealthy foods like dairy could be the primary cause. In fact, there are many studies linking milk allergies with GERD in young children. Here are two if you want to study the issue further:

Severe gastroesophageal reflux disease and cow milk hypersensitivity in infants and  children: disease association and evaluation of a new challenge procedure 

Gastroesophageal reflux and cow milk allergy: is there a link?

2. Dairy and Barrett’s Esophagus

Barrett's Esophagus

This is what Barrett’s Esophagus looks like. You get salmon colored splotches in the lower esophagus area. A healthy esophagus will have a uniform pink color. Photo courtesy of David Steele et al.

While there are currently no studies that link the consumption of dairy directly with erosive esophagitis and Barrett’s Esophagus, there are still many that suggest dairy can contribute indirectly to the risk of both.

Interestingly, Barrett’s Esophagus and esophagitis—like pretty much all chronic Western diseases—are conditions that most people think happen basically by chance.

You’re a-cruisin’, living your life, and dancing the years away, when all of a sudden—BAM! You get erosive esophagitis and Barrett’s Esophagus! Just out of the blue! These factors are completely out of your control, right?

Not entirely.

According to Dr. Filiberti et al., in “Dietary Habits and Risk of Esophagitis and Barrett’s Esophagus: A Multicenter Italian Case-Control Study, a diet rich in dairy, red meat, cold cuts, and fried foods INCREASES the risk of getting esophagitis and Barrett’s.

Inversely, a diet high in fruits and vegetables, and low in dairy, fried foods, and meat DECREASED the risk of esophagitis and Barrett’s by 27% and 20% respectively:

Dairy and Barretts

Note that dairy is in the excerpt above, which is interesting, because again, there aren’t many studies linking Barrett’s with dairy directly.

Further down the study, Filiberti et al. brings up dairy and Barrett’s again:

Dairy and Barretts Cause

A possible explanation for how dairy could contribute to the risk of Barrett’s lies in the fact that dairy is relatively high in saturated fat. A diet high in saturated fat most certainly increases the risk for Barrett’s Esophagus. We have tons of studies confirming this. Here’s one example:

Barrett's and Saturated Fat

By the way, a diet high in saturated fat also raises the risk for many other chronic Western conditions like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, obesity, and gallbladder disease.

Is the overlap between dairy, saturated fat, Barrett’s Esophagus, and chronic Western ailments just a mere coincidence?

3. Dairy and Cancer

Perhaps most jarring and controversial of all is that milk increases the risk of cancer. That’s all cancers, including esophageal adenocarcinoma—the one all refluxers have heard about and fear.

Here’s what one study done by researchers from Yale and Columbia University et al. had to say about dairy and cancer:

consumption of high-fat dairy products was associated with an increased risk of both subtypes of esophageal cancer

Notice how this study similar to the one I cited earlier about esophagitis, implicates again, high-fat dairy as part of the problem.

A Glassful of Sex Hormones

Did you know that a glass of milk contains at least 7 different kinds of sex hormones? And it doesn’t really matter which animal the milk comes from either—organic or non-organic—because mammalian milk is a product of pregnancy, and as such, will always contain the natural hormones associated with pregnancy.

You can’t filter or pasteurize the hormones out of milk because “hormone fluid” is exactly what it is.

So, a particular hormone of note that researchers have studied for years is IGF-1(or insulin-like growth factor). IGF-1 plays a central role in the growth and maturation of infants and calves alike, but also appears to accelerate the growth of cancerous tumors according to multiple studies.

For instance, Dr. Kalinina et al. from the University Medical Center in Hamburg, Germany concluded in a study, that IGF-1 is a reliable “predictor of poor prognostic outcome in adenocarcinoma[cancer] of the esophagus.”

Researchers from St. James Hospital and the University of Dublin also concluded that IGF-1 plays a “key role in malignant progression of esophageal cancer.”

Lastly, a study led by Dr. Adacho from Sappon Medical University in Japan establishes fundamentally, that “IGF-1 receptor signaling is required for carcinogenicity and tumor development.”

Critics may argue that these studies do not directly implicate dairy, to which I would agree. But the fact that dairy contains the very hormone that is related to cancerous tumor growth should cause any health-conscious GERD sufferer to think twice about drinking milk regularly.

Dairy Alternatives

Instead of cow’s milk, why not consider plant milk? There are several to choose from and most of them are healthier than cow’s milk. Some popular plant milks include rice, almond, soy, flax, hemp, and oat.

Rice Milk

Rice Milk

I don’t like rice milk because it contains concerning levels of arsenic(unfortunately most rice out on the market today does as well). Check out this informative video by Dr. Greger of NutritionFacts.org for more info.

Almond Milk

Almond Milk Heartburn Acid Reflux

Almond milk is generally healthier than rice milk but drinking a lot of it can increase the risk of kidney stones because of the high levels of oxalates found in almonds. For that reason almond milk is my second choice. Also, I’m not crazy about its taste but many people enjoy it.

Soy Milk

Soy Milk Heartburn Acid Reflux

Soy milk has a very particular taste that I am not fond of either, but the good news is it is healthy and some studies have found it to be protective against several cancers, including esophagus and breast.

Flax and Hemp Milk

Flax Milk
Hemp Milk

Flax and hemp milk are newer and sort of novel, but some nutrition studies have touted their health benefits. They’re pricier though.

Oat Milk

Oatly Mid Fat Heartburn Acid Reflux

Oat milk is my favorite plant milk because it’s creamy, tastes the closest to cow’s milk, goes great with cereal, and is just spectacular for making all sorts of yummy desserts and savory meals.

Oat milk also seems to be fairly healthy. One study found that drinking oat milk for 5 weeks significantly decreased LDL cholesterol(bad cholesterol). 

I think Oatly has the best-tasting oat milk on the market right now. They have 3 main options: full-fat, mid-fat, and low-fat. I always go mid-fat because it tastes good(low-fat doesn’t taste good to me at all) and has a reasonable amount of saturated fat:

Oatly Oat Milk Heartburn Acid Reflux

So if you haven’t tried plant milk yet, why not stop by your local grocery store and pick up a carton?

Let’s Recap

While plant milk is not as thick as cow’s milk, it is still considered a neutral pH drink and may soothe heartburn if you just had something spicy.

But what’s more important is that in the long run, plant milk won’t increase your risk for esophagitis, Barrett’s Esophagus, and cancer like whole-fat milk may.

I don’t know about you, but personally, I am a much bigger fan of less cancer risk than I am of more cancer risk.