Milk and Heartburn – Is Milk A Good Acid Reflux Remedy?

In this article, we will be investigating the idea that milk can help relieve acid reflux. Milk is popularly recommended as one of the best heartburn remedies, but is this the truth or just an old wives’ tale?


The Chemistry of Milk and Heartburn

First, we need to look at any path of action that milk may be able to use in order to reduce heartburn. The first step is to look at exactly what is in milk itself.

Milk is actually a weak acid, with a standard pH of 6.7 (anything between 0-7 on the pH scale is considered an acid). However, since it is a weak acid, it acts as a buffer solution. A buffer solution is a solution that resists changes to its pH.

To clarify for those not versed in chemistry; hydrogen ions (H+) are what makes a solution acidic; the more H+, the more acidic a solution is. Buffer solutions (i.e. milk) are able to absorb H+ ions without any change in their pH, by storing them in a different chemical form.

As a result, when you mix milk and stomach acid, the resulting solution is less acidic than stomach acid. This occurs because milk absorbs some of the H+ ions that make stomach acid acidic.

In this way, milk acts much like antacids. Calcium carbonate, a popular antacid, acts as a buffer as well, absorbing H+ ions to resist changes in pH.


The Problem With Milk as a Heartburn Remedy

One major problem with milk is that some people are allergic to milk. There is some evidence, for example, that lactose intolerance (also known as lactose malabsorption) can lead to heartburn when drinking milk (1). While milk protein allergies are not as common as lactose intolerance, it is well-documented that milk may lead to reflux in this particular group (2).

Just because milk can act as a buffer solution does not mean we necessarily recommend it. Milk acts much in the same way as calcium carbonate does (calcium carbonate is the primary ingredient of nearly all over the counter antacids). While “natural”, milk is not necessarily superior to calcium carbonate given milk’s ingredients (lactose and casein are particularly troublesome for some people).

The real issue here is that we know antacids are not always effective at relieving heartburn, and milk acts just like an antacid. Antacids often leave people with a “sour stomach” feeling or only work temporarily.

Taking too many antacids (or drinking too much of any buffer solution such as milk) might temporarily change the pH of the stomach, causing pepsin to become deactivated (pepsin is an extremely important digestive enzyme that only works under acidic conditions). Anything which interrupts digestion may only make heartburn worse.


Milk as a Heartburn Remedy – The Bottom Line

The end result is that some people might get temporary relief from heartburn after drinking a glass of milk, but this is likely to be short-lived and no more effective than taking a simple antacid.

Overall, we feel that this drinking milk to stop heartburn is much less effective than other natural remedies such as chewing gum; the saliva produced by chewing gum can help blunt symptoms as well as improve digestion, whereas milk only blunts symptoms.

References

1. Minenna MF, Palieri A, Panella C, Ierardi E. Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease and lactose malabsorption: Casual comorbidity or neglected association? Dig Liver Dis. 2006 Jun; 38(6):437-8.

2. Caffarelli, C., et al. Cow’s milk protein allergy in children: a practical guide. Ital J Pediatr. 2010 Jan 15; 36:5.

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