Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) is also known as acid reflux or is commonly referred to as “heartburn” or “indigestion.” This condition causes discomfort or burning sensation in the esophagus when acid rises out of the stomach toward the throat.
Symptoms of acid reflux
Occasional acid reflux is quite common, particularly after a meal. Nearly everyone will experience it at some point, and it can occur at any age, from infants to adults. On the other hand, frequent symptoms should not happen and may lead to more severe problems if not addressed.
Most common symptoms include:
- Heartburn - a burning sensation in the middle of the chest or throat.
- Regurgitation - when food or stomach contents and acid come back up into the throat or mouth.
- Dysphagia - trouble swallowing.
Other symptoms may include:
- Painful swallowing.
- Chronic sore throat.
- Feeling food caught in your throat (globus sensation).
- Hoarse voice or laryngitis.
- Recurring or chronic cough.
- Bad breath.
- Gum irritation or cavities.
- Chest pain.
- Nausea or vomiting.
Why am I getting these symptoms?
Acid reflux is due to an abnormality of the esophagus, the lower esophageal sphincter, or the stomach itself. The esophagus acts as a pump and without its proper function, acid is not cleared. The stomach acts as a reservoir and decreased gastric emptying causes acid to overflow and back-up. The most common reason for acid reflux, however, occurs because the lower esophageal sphincter (valve which separates the esophagus and stomach), does not prevent the acid from traveling back up into the esophagus. Acid irritates the esophagus and throat and can leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Symptoms may occur after eating, due to overeating, eating particular types of foods (spicy, dairy, or fried foods), laying down after eating, pregnancy, certain medications, or other medical problems.
If you experience the symptoms above more than twice a week over several weeks, or symptoms keep returning, treatment may be necessary. The acid can cause damage to the esophagus, the throat, and even the nose and sinuses, along with other possible complications.
Reduce your acid reflux and prevent it
There are several ways to treat your acid reflux. Depending on how often and how severe your symptoms are, you may try a few things on your own. If your symptoms are mild or infrequent, you can take steps at home to decrease the occurrence and possibly avoid medication. These are lifestyle and dietary changes.
Avoid foods that increase reflux or slow digestion, including foods that are salty, high in fat, or spicy, such as:
- Fried foods.
- Fast food.
- Processed foods like chips and snacks.
- Cheese and dairy products.
- Fatty meats like pork, bacon, or sausage.
- Tomato-based products.
- Carbonated beverages.
- Caffeine including coffee, tea, and soda.
- Onions and garlic.
Foods that can minimize reflux
Some foods may help prevent acid reflux:
- High fiber can help you feel full and prevent overeating, potentially decreasing reflux. Those foods include whole grains (oatmeal, rice, and certain kinds of pasta) and vegetables (broccoli, squashes, and root veggies like potatoes and carrots).
- Foods low in acid or higher in pH are less likely to cause reflux. Some may even decrease the amount of acid in the stomach. Those foods include nuts, melons, seeds, legumes, and bananas.
- Foods high in water content can also help reduce stomach acid, potentially lowering the possibility of reflux. Celery, lettuce, watermelon, broth, and herbal tea can increase your water intake and potentially decrease your reflux symptoms.
Lifestyle changes that help
Reducing acid reflux may require more than just changing the things you eat. How we live can have a significant impact on our bodies and affect our stomach and acid production too. Making changes to the way we live and our overall health can diminish symptoms as well.
These lifestyle modifications may also be beneficial:
- All things in moderation. It may not be necessary to remove trigger foods from your diet altogether. Occasionally small amounts might not be a problem.
- Avoid eating late in the evening or before bed to prevent food from sitting in the stomach when you lay down. Wait at least 3 hours after eating before going to bed.
- Small frequent meals instead of large meals can cut down the amount of food you eat, decreasing the pressure in the stomach and reducing the acid pushed up the esophagus.
- Losing weight, if necessary, can lower pressure on the stomach and the amount of acid that rises up.
- Quit smoking.
- Stay upright for at least 45 to 60 minutes after meals.
- Elevate the head of your bed 6 to 8 inches. Sleeping with the bed at an angle may prevent acid from rising up compared to lying flat. Propping on pillows is not enough.
- Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing or garments around your belly. This can increase pressure and cause acid to rise up the esophagus.
- Do not rush through your meals. Slow eating can lower pressure and acid production.
- Wait to exercise. Vigorous activity and bending after eating can cause stomach upset and reflux. Be sure to wait a couple of hours before doing anything too strenuous.
- Discuss your current medications with your healthcare provider. Some medications like anti-inflammatories, bisphosphonates, and antidepressants can cause reflux symptoms.
- Decrease or eliminate frequent alcohol intake.
Other treatment options
If your symptoms are more frequent or moderate to severe, you may require more aggressive treatment.
- Antacids: Available over the counter at your local store or pharmacy, antacids can help relieve mild symptoms. However, don't use these daily or to treat severe discomfort. You can take too many antacids, which can cause other medical problems, including taking too much calcium. If your symptoms are severe or occur daily, see your healthcare provider.
- Medications: Your healthcare provider may direct you to take medications known as proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers. These medicines decrease the amount of acid the stomach makes therefore lowering how much is available in the stomach. Both are available over the counter or by prescription if needed. These medications do have long-term risks such as increasing the chances of osteoporosis, so it is best to discuss these medications with your doctor. Other medications are also available by prescription if these are not beneficial.
- Surgical Intervention: Surgery for acid reflux should always be a last resort. There are procedures to diagnose or treat the problem depending on the cause and severity of your acid reflux. Doctors can perform an in-office procedure called endoscopy to see how much damage has been caused by the acid. Other procedures may include repairing hiatal hernia, fundoplication, or bariatric surgery.
Acid reflux can be bothersome, and most people experience it at some point. Symptoms are typically short-lived and infrequent. There are several ways to treat or prevent mild acid reflux, including diet and lifestyle changes. However, it's essential to contact your healthcare provider if symptoms become frequent or severe.