Heartburn has a nasty habit of making everyday life miserable. That burning sensation after eating ruins your enjoyment of meals, the chest pain that occurs whenever you lie down is slowly turning you into a zombie, and the sour taste that sits in your throat each day is far from appetizing. Thankfully for most patients, chronic reflux and heartburn aren’t a lifelong sentence.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is treatable, whether it’s a more severe case requiring surgery or a minor case managed simply by lifestyle changes. A big part of both diagnosing and determining how to treat your reflux, though, is understanding your symptoms. Acid reflux is one of the most common symptoms associated with GERD, but the frequency with which someone experiences it is an important piece of the puzzle.

A great thing for patients who are headed to see a reflux specialist about their heartburn issues is to consider keeping a heartburn journal. It’s exactly what it sounds like: using a journal to keep track of your heartburn episodes in order to determine when, why, and how they might be triggered. Heartburn Journal can identify the foods and bad habits that trigger your heartburn, in addition to telling your doctor more about whether or not you have a chronic condition. There are many benefits to keeping a heartburn journal, but here are five reasons why we recommend it to patients.

1. Learn What Specific Heartburn Symptoms Occur and When

In the journal, write down the specific symptoms of heartburn that you experience and when they occur.  Note the date, time, and what you think caused the symptoms.  For example, “On October 1st at 1 p.m.: sour acid taste in throat and mouth.  I ate pasta with meat sauces for lunch very quickly.” Use these entries to ask yourself some questions. Do you find yourself getting more symptoms after lunch or dinner? Does what you eat seem to be effecting it?  After you keep the journal for a few weeks, you will begin to see a pattern. 

Keep the journal daily for about a month for all three meals. This means breakfast, lunch, and dinner and snacks. Don’t be afraid to be detailed and precise. You are trying to find out how to keep reflux disease from running your life. When your are busy with work or school, carry a notebook with you.

2. Identify What Foods and Beverages Trigger GERD Symptoms

Write down the foods and beverages you consume throughout the day. Note any symptoms that occur after eating or drinking certain foods.  For most people a notebook is the easiest way to make sure that they never miss being able to track a meal, even if on the go.

Common food triggers are chocolate, spicy foods, fried foods, citrus fruits, tomatoes, hot peppers, onion, garlic, oranges and grapefruit. Cheese, nuts and meat due to the high fat content often trigger symptoms. Beverages that are carbonated, coffee, alcohol and any caffeinated beverages trigger heartburn. This is due to the acid in them. Keep an eye out when journaling for instances where your heartburn is tied to eating or drinking something on the above list. Once you identify your specific triggers, you can eliminate them from your diet. This will go a long way towards reducing symptoms.

3. Learn What Lifestyle Habits Contribute to Heartburn

Lifestyle habits can definitely contribute to your GERD symptoms. For many people with reflux, lying down after eating often brings on heartburn and nausea. Don’t lie down after eating, try to wait three hours and give yourself time to digest your food.  Don’t wearing tight clothing and avoid smoking. Exercising after a meal is another huge cause of heartburn, since intense exercise often triggers GERD. Try a milder exercise like walking, biking, swimming, or yoga.

Stress at work or with friends and family can trigger symptoms too. Write down situations and conversations you had with coworkers, friends or family that cause stress. This way you are aware of them and can find constructive ways to deal with them. You might try deep breathing, yoga, or mediation. 

4. Analyze What Methods Relieve Heartburn

In your journal, write down what actions you took that helped to relieve your reflux symptoms. Whether it’s taking medication immediately, choosing to watch TV a bit before lying down after a meal, taking a walk to relieve daily stress or simply adjusting your sleeping position so you don’t wake up at night with heartburn.

Learning to know yourself and your symptoms will help you identify the lifestyle changes that work for you. It will help you make the connection between food, habits and symptoms. You will know what works and what doesn’t, and will be able to take an active role in relieving your heartburn symptoms.

5. Summarize Results after a Month to Get the Big Picture

When you finish the journal, summarize the information. Look for similarities and conclusions by reading the many listings and identifying patterns. For example:  When you drank orange juice and coffee for breakfast you had heartburn almost every day. This is definitely a trigger that causes your symptoms. When you identify potential triggers, write them down in a separate section of the journal. This gives you a better look at the big picture, and will be a helpful resource when you sit down with your doctor.  

Not sure how you want to lay out your heartburn journal? Some people enjoy using old-fashioned pen and paper, but for others electronic journals or apps might be more up your alley.  SkyGazer Labs offers the mySymptoms Food Diary. It records food, drink, medications, symptoms, exercise and stress, then analyzes the data for you.  There is also a Heartburn and Acid Reflux Dairy available by Cellhigh on IOS and Android.

Once you have finished your heartburn journal, sit down with a reflux specialist and go over it. They’ll be able to examine your symptoms, determine whether you may be a candidate for GERD, then walk you through the diagnosis and treatment process. Don’t suffer the many different symptoms of GERD, contact a reflux specialist for diagnosing GERD and get treated.