This week, I had a question from a listener who has been dealing with acid reflux.
I remember feeling disheartened by the news that a common pharmaceutical treatment, Nexium, may be causing more harm to people than good. I know that it has helped so many feel better, but it’s unfortunate that it has some unintended and potentially serious side effects.
So, regarding acid reflux, let’s start at the very beginning — as I always do — and talk about what acid reflux actually is and what the symptoms are. I like doing this because once we understand what this condition is all about, it can sometimes clue us in as to what treatments can be most effective.
What is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux is sometimes referred to by its fancy, medical name: gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. You might hear your doctor or other health professionals refer to this condition as GERD.
I’ll start by explaining what normally happens when we eat.
Ready? Here’s what’s supposed to happen. We chew and swallow our food. This chewed food travels down the esophagus (which is that tube that connects the mouth to the stomach). Now, at the bottom of the esophagus just before the food actually enters the stomach, there is a one-way door that the food has to first pass through. Luckily, for most of us, that door works just fine when it comes to letting food in. As soon as food has entered the stomach, the door closes behind it… well, usually. It’s super important that door closes.
This is because when food enters the stomach, the acid in our stomach starts to attack that food to break it down. This is a very natural process and important for proper digestion. As soon as food hits the stomach, it becomes more acidic. By having that door between the stomach and esophagus close, it prevents that stomach acid and acidic food from going back up the esophagus.
Now here’s the problem. In some people and for various reasons, that door doesn’t always close properly after food has entered the stomach. It stays open. This means that some of that stomach acid and acidic food can creep back up into the esophagus. This is why this condition is sometimes referred to acid reflux. We can now understand where the word, “acid” comes from.
What about the term, “reflux”? Reflux is defined as the movement of fluid in an abnormal direction. Since partially digested food is moving up the esophagus as opposed to down it, this makes sense, too. And when we think about the more formal, fancy medical term I mentioned before, gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD — this also makes sense. “Gastro” refers to stomach, “esophageal” means esophagus, and we now know what reflux means.
Why is Acid Reflux Painful?
I should also mention that the stomach can handle a highly acidic environment, as it’s built for that. But the esophagus can’t. So when acid enters the esophagus, it tends to cause some pain. Many describe that pain as a “burning” sensation. And, since the location of the doorway that connects the esophagus to the stomach is located near the center of the body (below the breastbone and sorta near the heart), this burning sensation is sometimes referred to as “heartburn.”
So why does this happen? GERD can be caused by a variety of things. The first could be a hernia. Or it can simply be due to the fact that the doorway between your esophagus and stomach doesn’t close or latch properly because the muscles that close it are weak. Luckily, we do have some ideas for how to make it more likely the door closes more often.
Home Remedies for Heartburn Relief
Some of you may tried some different remedies to help relieve your symptoms. Common ones are apple cider vinegar, removing dairy from your diet, consuming less meat, and using digestive enzymes. When I looked at some of the studies examining the effects of these, here’s what I found:
- When it comes to apple cider vinegar, it turns out that this doesn’t seem to help with GERD. Rather, it may even make folks feel worse. So, if you haven’t already, go ahead and stop using this one and see if it helps at all.
- Regarding digestive enzymes, there don’t appear to be any on the market — that have been well-studied at least — to help relieve acid reflux.
- When it comes to dairy, there doesn’t seem to be a clear link between consuming dairy and worsening GERD symptoms. But, if you find that removing dairy from your diet it helps, then keep it up.
- On the other hand, meat can aggravate acid reflux, particularly if it’s high in fat.
So, what to do? Well, we do know that there are some common culprits to worsening GERD symptoms. Some of these are foods and others are more lifestyle related. I’ll start with the foods first. We have learned that some foods can weaken those muscles that help the door between the esophagus and stomach close. According to Health.com, these foods are:
- I’m going to apologize in advance for this one – chocolate
- Peppermint and black pepper
- Fried or high-fat foods
Other Tips to Reduce Acid Reflux
From a lifestyle perspective, carrying extra body weight and cigarette smoking can also aggravate acid reflux. So, quitting smoking and losing weight may help relieve some of the symptoms.
There are some other behaviors that can help as well. For example, not lying down soon after eating can help. Lying down may make it more likely for that partially digested, acidic food creep back up into the esophagus. That’s why many health professionals will recommend that the last food or beverage consumed should be at least 2-3 hours before bedtime.
Some people try to get around this by still eating close to bedtime and propping themselves upright using pillows. This is not a good idea. I repeat, this is not a good idea. That’s because using pillows can actually put more pressure on the stomach, potentially pushing food back up the esophagus.
Back to eating habits, it’s also recommended that small, more frequent meals are consumed each day. By not filling the stomach too much, we can prevent that food from going back up into the esophagus.
I hope this information helps you feel better, if you're struggling with acid reflux!