You may call it acid indigestion or heartburn, but by any name, gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD or reflux for short, is a painful ailment that affects more than 60 million Americans at least once a month.
The trademark burning sensation that travels from the middle of the chest and moves up along the back of the throat is familiar to many pregnant women who frequently suffer from GERD. But this painful condition also is common for people who are overweight, who smoke or have a hiatal hernia. It’s an ailment that’s often associated with middle age, but reflux affects infants and young children as well.
Reflux actually causes the symptom of heartburn or acid indigestion. This digestive problem occurs when the stomach’s acidic contents back up into the esophagus, the “food pipe,” or organ that runs from the throat to the stomach. Normally, that backflow is prevented by the lower esophageal sphincter, a muscle that connects the esophagus and the stomach. But, when the LES becomes weak, it can’t prevent the backflow of food and stomach acid into the esophagus.
The severity of reflux varies from person to person and depends on how weak the LES is and what type of foods were eaten. For those reasons, a change in eating habits helps ease the burning sensation for most people. While antacids relieve the pain by neutralizing stomach acid, they don’t correct the problem and shouldn’t be taken excessively.
But, if antacids are used long-term, they can cause diarrhea, as well as difficulty processing calcium and magnesium. That can result in serious problems for people with kidney disease. If antacids are needed more than twice a week or it takes longer than three weeks to control reflux, talk with a doctor. For some heartburn sufferers, prescription medications, or even surgery, is necessary.
Cut your risk of heartburn pain by avoiding foods that can aggravate acid indigestion. The following foods are common reflux culprits, either because they irritate the lining of the esophagus or they weaken the LES:
- Alcoholic drinks
- Peppermint or spearmint
- Fatty foods (particularly fried foods)
- Citrus fruits and juices (such as orange and grapefruit juice, or whole fruits)
- Tomato-based products and juices
In addition to watching the foods you eat, taking additional precautions at meals and after you eat will help ease acid indigestion:
- If possible, eat smaller portions throughout the day rather than three large meals.
- Eat about two to three hours before you lie down.
- Use pillows or a foam wedge to elevate your head about 6 inches from the bed or mattress.
- Lose weight. People who are overweight have greater problems with reflux, and they are typically more comfortable when they lose weight.
Controlling reflux is important for more than simply seeking relief. Long-term reflux disease can lead to a precancerous condition of the esophagus called Barrett’s esophagus. Other problems can include bleeding, narrowing of the esophagus, and even pain that feels similar to a heart attack.