A large part of the American population suffers from acid reflux and GERD. The two terms are often used interchangeably but there is a major difference between these. GERD stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease and acid reflux can be also called GER or simply gastroesophageal reflux.
Acid reflux refers to the backward or upward movement of stomach acid into your esophagus, causing burning sensation along the length of the food pipe. This symptom is often identified as heartburn even though it is not related to the heart. In fact, acid reflux is sometimes mistaken as the onset of a heart attack too. The root of the problem lies with a circular muscle that is present at the connecting point between your esophagus and stomach. It is called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This muscle contracts after food passes into your stomach from your esophagus, thereby preventing anything from re-entering the esophagus. If LES weakens and fails to close properly, it may lead to acid reflux and consequent problems.
GERD refers to the chronic form of acid reflux. Someone suffering from mild acid reflux at least twice a week or severe acid reflux twice a month can be said to have GERD. It can also lead to inflammation and lacerations of the delicate inner lining of the esophagus. Prolonged neglect of the condition can even lead to cancer.
Symptoms of acid reflux and GERD
Since acid reflux and GERD are so closely related, it is no wonder that the symptoms of the two diseases are also quite similar. Some of the commonly associated symptoms are listed below.
- Sour or bitter taste in the mouth
- Sore throat
- Persistent cough
- Painful pressure in the chest area
- Bad breath
- Difficulty in swallowing food
- Frequent sensation of tasting regurgitated food at the back of throat
- Damaged tooth enamel
- Disruption in sleep
Causes of acid reflux and GERD
There are various causes that push a person towards acid reflux or GERD. Most of the risk factors have more to do with lifestyle issues than to do with genetic problems. Thus, it is considerably simple to prevent yourself from suffering from these conditions. Some of the common causes and risks are given below.
- Poor diet choices (high calories but lacking in adequate nutrition)
- Hiatal hernia (upward bulging of the stomach into the diaphragm)
- Excess smoking
- Excess consumption of alcohol
- Scleroderma and other connective tissue disorders
- Eating too late at night
- Eating too large portions
- Delayed and improper emptying of stomach
- Regular intake of medicines like antihistamines, aspirins, sedatives, anti-depressants, pain-relievers, etc. that weaken the LES gradually
- Intake of fatty, fried, or processed food items
- Consumption of excess coffee
Complications resulting from acid reflux and GERD
These conditions are not only painful in the short term, but if left untreated, they can go on to create severe complications and bring upon fatal diseases.
- Barrett’s esophagus
The inner lining of the esophagus is more delicate than the lining of the stomach so it is more vulnerable and susceptible to damages due to stomach acid. The inflammation and injuries caused to the lining tissue are collectively known as Barrett’s esophagus and it increases the chances of you contracting esophageal cancer.
- Esophageal ulcer
Stomach acid can lead to the formation of an open wound or sore on the inside of your esophagus. This sore or esophageal ulcer can bleed at times, making normal activities like eating a terribly painful chore.
- Esophageal stricture
Sometimes damage to the tissue lining the inner wall of the esophagus can lead to scarring. The thickness of this scar tissue leads to narrowing of the esophagus causing stricture. This leads to difficulty in swallowing food.
Simple ways to prevent acid reflux and GERD
Luckily there are very simple steps that can help you to keep acid reflux and GERD at bay. Take a look at my tips.
- Eat small meals on time
When you eat a large meal, too much pressure is created on your stomach and it might cause the contents to flow back upward. Eat 4-5 small meals instead of three large meals. Also, eat on time. Skipping meals or staying hungry for too long can aggravate acid reflux issues.
- Don’t go to bed right after dinner
Make sure that your dinner is done at least 2 hours before bedtime. When you go to bed with your stomach full, the chances of acid reflux increase by many folds.
- Choose your food wisely
Avoid eating too much of spicy foods, fatty foods, tomatoes, onions, garlic, chocolates, etc. All these food items also come with loads of health benefits so no point in cutting them out fully. Try to exercise portion control and you will be fine.
- Avoid fizzy drinks
Avoid carbonated drinks or sparkling water. You are more likely to burp after ingesting such beverages and burping frequently can send stomach acid up your esophagus. Drinking plain water is the healthiest thing to do.
- Maintain a healthy weight
Obesity often compounds the problems of acid reflux and GERD. Increased weight will reduce pressure on the LES thereby making it harder for the muscle to stay closed. Lose some weight if you are overweight and try to maintain a healthy body weight.
- Make sure that your head is at a higher level than your stomach when you sleep
Try to maintain a gentle incline on your bed so that your head is at a higher level than your stomach. You can stack up pillows to achieve this too.
- Run a check through your regular medicines
Certain medicines can weaken the LES as a side effect. Check with your doctor to find out if you are taking any such medicine.
- Quit smoking
Smoking is one habit that does no good to your health. Nicotine significantly relaxes the LES so quitting can help to keep it taut and thus control acid reflux.
- Limit coffee and alcohol consumption
Too much of coffee and/or alcohol consumption often causes issues with digestion. Limit your intake to prevent consequent acid reflux.
- Avoid rigorous exercise after meals
Do not participate in rigorous exercises right after your meals. If you bend forward or stretch backward, you kind of help your stomach acid to flow back into the esophagus. However, a walk or light activities after meals are completely ok, and are, in fact, encouraged.
Foods that help to alleviate the problems
Just like certain kinds of foods can aggravate acid reflux problems, some food items can help you fight it. Mainly three types of food items can prevent GERD efficiently.
- Alkaline foods
All food items come with a pH value. Those with a low pH value are considered to be acidic while those with a high pH value are said to be alkaline. Eating more of these foods can help you curb the problem of stomach acid flowing upward. Some examples of alkaline foods include cauliflower, bananas, melons, fennel, nuts, etc.
- High-fiber foods
Eating fiber-dense foods help you to feel full faster and for longer. It is a good trick to prevent over-eating which in turn can trigger acid reflux. Some common high-fiber food items are carrots, beetroots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, asparagus, whole grains, etc.
- Foods with high water content
When you eat foods with high water content, it can help to dilute the stomach acid, thereby reducing the chances of further complications. Some examples of such food items are watermelon, cucumber, celery, lettuce, soups, etc.
Acid reflux and GERD are problems that can bring down the quality of life significantly and even cause bigger health issues in the long run. The good news is that you can identify what is causing the problems for you and prevent it. In most cases, lifestyle changes and adoption of healthier habits can help to prevent GERD. So, what are you waiting for? Make the necessary tweaks to your lifestyle and say goodbye to acidity!