Posted on November 14 2018
Most people have had a bout of acid reflux every now and then. It's uncomfortable, but you've probably taken something for the heartburn, cursed the food you ate, and moved on. Many of us are probably going to be experiencing something similar later this month at Thanksgiving! But some people have it frequently, a chronic condition known as Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). You may not have this common disease yourself, but many of its causes are common to infrequent cases of acid reflux. This is particularly valuable as we head into the holidays -- both family feasts and unhealthy snacks can provoke an attack of acid reflux.
Both GERD as well as infrequent acid reflux or indigestion are common, although influenced by diet and lifestyle:
- 20 percent of Americans suffer from GERD.
- Over 60 million Americans experience heartburn once a month.
- Over 15 million Americans experience heartburn every day.
- Westerners experience acid indigestion with greater frequency: 10-20% weekly versus 5% of Asian citizens.
Signs and Symptoms of GERD
Distinguishing GERD from infrequent reflux can be challenging. Many people get heartburn and attribute it to something they ate, even if it happens repeatedly. Here are some symptoms to watch out for:
- Heartburn that occurs 2 or more times per week or increases in severity.
- Heartburn that interrupts sleep.
- Infrequent heartburn that occurs over months or years.
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing.
- Chronic sore throat or throat irritation.
- Waterbrash: excess production of saliva, sometimes regurgitated.
- Erosion of tooth enamel.
- Gum inflammation.
- Dysphagia: the sensation of food sticking in the esophagus.
- Vomiting or regurgitation of acid.
- Belching, sour taste, or bad breath.
The presence of GERD is distinguished not just by heartburn, but by the tissue damage that might be caused by the esophageal lining being exposed repeatedly to stomach acid. This can cause a number of complications, including:
- Esophageal stricture: a narrowing of the esophagus due to scar tissue buildup.
- Esophageal ulcer: open sores that can lead to pain, bleeding, and problems swallowing.
- Barrett's Esophagus: A precancerous condition in which the esophageal lining becomes abnormal and more like intestinal lining.
- Esophageal cancer.
Causes of GERD
Reflux, the flow of stomach contents back into the esophagus, is due to a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a ring that keeps the top of your stomach closed. When the LES is weakened, compromised, or relaxes at the wrong moments, stomach acid can travel back upward and cause damage to the esophagus.
This simple mechanism, though, has many potential causes. Among the many risk factors for GERD are:
- Being overweight or obese.
- Eating large meals.
- Eating soon before going to bed.
- Lying flat after eating.
- Hiatal hernia: a hernia that occurs where your stomach and esophagus join.
- Certain medications: aspirin, some drugs for asthma, high blood pressure, allergies, depression, sleep disorders, and pain.
- Certain foods and drinks, detailed in the next section.
Whether you suffer from GERD or just want to avoid the pain of heartburn, there are a number of steps you can take. The easiest, and most directly relevant to the upcoming holidays, is to limit your intake of certain foods and drinks that contribute to acid reflux. Among these are:
- High-fat foods: fried foods, gravies, desserts, fatty meats, full-fat dairy products.
- Oily or greasy goods.
- Citrus fruits and tomatoes.
- Chocolate: it relaxes the LES muscle.
- Spices: garlic, onions, other spicy foods.
You probably see most of your holiday meal on this list, but there's no reason to despair: many holiday favorites, such as turkey, chicken, fish, vegetables, and non-citrus fruits are not only safe, but may help manage reflux symptoms. Particularly important is increasing your fiber intake, which helps fight GERD symptoms and has a host of other benefits, including helping to control blood sugar, reducing cholesterol, and preventing hemorrhoids and other bowel issues.
Click HERE for a special chart detailing what foods to choice and what foods to avoid to alleviate GERD symptoms.
There are other lifestyle changes you can make to manage not only GERD but occasional indigestion:
- Portion control: don't overeat.
- Weight loss: losing weight via diet and exercise reduces incidences of reflux.
- Stop smoking.
- Antacids: calcium carbonate or magnesium hydroxide medications that neutralize stomach acidity.
- Proton Pump Inhibitors: medications that reduce stomach acid production.
- Ranitidine Syrup: a medication that reduces stomach acid production.
- Sleep changes: don't eat for 3 or 4 hours before bed, and sleep with your head elevated.
Different foods may affect individuals to different degrees. What bothers one person's stomach may not do the same to another. Moderation and a generally healthy lifestyle is just as important as food choice. So when you're at the Thanksgiving table, pay attention to not just what you're eating, but how many helpings you take in.