At least once a month, 50 million Americans notice a burning sensation that creeps up from the chest to the base of the throat. Every day, 10 percent of these people experience this condition known in its chronic form as gastroesophageal reflux disease (or GERD). This occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which normally closes after foods and liquids pass through to the stomach, fails to function properly, allowing acid back up into the esophagus, the tube between the throat and stomach. If this happens too often, the lining of the esophagus becomes irritated and inflamed.
Striking at any age, GERD can scar the esophagus. “Even a small amount of acid in the wrong place [such as the esophagus] can cause symptoms and ultimately tissue damage,” explains family physician Jonathan V. Wright, MD. GERD can lead to Barrett’s esophagus, raising the risk of cancer. Should stomach acids reach the lungs, asthma-like symptoms may occur. Stomach acid can even impact oral health, so dentists sometimes notice the signs of gastroesophageal reflux.
Persistent heartburn is the most frequent symptom of GERD, which may exist without any other noticeable signals. Bloating and gas, hoarseness, regurgitation of stomach contents, sore throat, trouble swallowing, or wheezing may signal gastroesophageal reflux. Developing GERD in childhood or adolescence usually means the condition will continue into adulthood—unless treated effectively.
Many prescription drugs are available, but they block the secretion of stomach acid (critical to healthy digestion) for several hours at a time. These medicines can bring a variety of side effects—constipation, diarrhea, headache, skin reactions, vomiting, and even gout and impotence. Safer antacids (Rolaids, Tums) neutralize stomach acid, but can inhibit the absorption of calcium and other nutrients.
Simple lifestyle changes can relieve the underlying causes of GERD. Losing weight, wearing loose-fitting clothes, and eating smaller meals usually help. Avoid alcohol, which relaxes the esophageal sphincter muscles too much, and some prescription drugs (Bentyl, Calan, Inderal) that can worsen GERD. Chocolate, coffee, fatty and fried foods, and even peppermint can weaken the LES, as does smoking. Eat more raw foods, particularly papaya and pineapple, to promote digestion. Drink water at the first sign of heartburn and try chamomile tea to soothe an inflamed esophagus.
Calcium and magnesium naturally neutralize excess stomach acid. Vitamin B complex (with extra B12) aids healthy digestion, and friendly bacteria, or probiotics, are also useful.