Acid reflux, otherwise known as heartburn, is one of the most common gastrointestinal symptoms found in the general population. Like other symptoms related to the digestive system, acid reflux can be a temporary annoyance that resolves on its own, or it can become a chronic problem that requires medical advice from a gastroenterologist. Many people look to antacids or other medications for treatment, but there is also a more natural approach that can help reduce the symptoms of acid reflux: regular exercise.
What Is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux is a common condition characterized by a backward flow of stomach contents up into the esophagus. Because of the high concentration of stomach acid that backs up, acid reflux can cause a variety of symptoms like a burning sensation in the chest, difficulty swallowing, regurgitation, or general chest pain. While anyone can get acid reflux, there are some risk factors that make it more likely:
- eating a lot of spicy, acidic, or fatty foods
- excessive alcohol consumption
- certain medications
- obesity or carrying excess weight
- hiatal hernia
For most people, acid reflux is an isolated incident that directly follows an episode of eating or drinking too much. But for an estimated 20% of the population, acid reflux can become a chronic problem known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. The symptoms of GERD are essentially the same as acid reflux, though usually more severe and prominent. If left untreated, the ongoing irritation of the esophageal lining can cause permanent tissue damage that can lead to other health problems like esophagitis or Barrett's esophagus.
Even though there are various stimuli that can trigger heartburn, the underlying mechanism of acid reflux and GERD is typically a functional problem in the esophagus. Anatomically, the esophagus meets the stomach at an opening in the diaphragm called the esophageal hiatus. This is also the same location as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscular ring that normally contracts to allow food to pass into the stomach and then relaxes to prevent that food and other stomach contents from coming back into the esophagus.
Acid reflux occurs when the lower esophageal either doesn’t close properly or doesn’t close completely after food passes through. This allows an opening for stomach acid and partially digested food to slosh back up the esophagus and cause irritation that can manifest in a variety of different ways. While there are some medical conditions (like achalasia) that can weaken the LES in this way, it can also be caused by excess pressure in the abdominal cavity; this is also why obesity and pregnancy increase the likelihood of acid reflux.
Can Regular Exercise Help?
Whether you have an occasional bout of heartburn or a chronic case of GERD, many of the options for treatment are similar. One approach that has been known to ease symptoms over time is a regular exercise habit. However, not all types of exercise or physical activity are necessarily beneficial for acid reflux; in fact, high intensity, high-impact exercises may even worsen acid reflux symptoms. Instead, try low-impact exercises that get you moving without exacerbating the condition. Below are some examples of exercises that can help:
- Walking: Walking and light jogging are low impact and can be beneficial for acid reflux because it promotes gentle movement.
- Cycling: A long, grueling bicycling session can be problematic for acid reflux, but light cycling outdoors or on a stationary bike can be a good cardiovascular exercise without putting excessive strain on the digestive system.
- Swimming: Swimming laps in a pool is another great exercise that improves cardiovascular health while also not putting strain on joints or the abdominal cavity.
- Yoga: Certain yoga poses and practices may help with promoting calmness and good digestion, especially those that focus on gentle stretching, deep breathing, and relaxation techniques.
- Pilates: Pilates is similar to yoga in terms of low-impact movements, but it places a greater emphasis on building muscles that improve strength, stability, and endurance.
As noted above, though, not all exercises are necessarily helpful for reducing acid reflux symptoms. Any movements that put pressure or strain on the abdominal wall, for instance, can actually make acid reflux worse. Examples include gymnastics, crunches, and even some yoga poses. Additionally, high-impact workout routines like weight lifting, sprinting, gymnastics, or vigorous aerobics may promote a flareup of acid reflux. One rule of thumb for beginners is to spend 30 minutes, three times a week doing a low-intensity exercise. You can then adjust based on whether or not the exercise improved the symptoms.
Other Ways to Treat Heartburn
Though there are some specific conditions that include GERD as a symptom, for most people it stems from lifestyle choices that can be changed or modified. There are also risk factors (like simply getting older) that can’t really be changed or modified. This is why treatment for GERD generally involves a variety of methods that may work differently for different people:
- Diet: Many instances of acid reflux can be mitigated or prevented simply by avoiding trigger foods and beverages. Examples of foods to avoid include spicy foods, fast food, chocolate, caffeine, and alcohol. Additionally, eating smaller meals at more frequent intervals can help you avoid expanding the stomach too much in a way that affects the function of the lower esophageal sphincter.
- Weight loss: Carrying extra weight around the midsection is another factor that increases the chances of acid reflux. But by losing weight, some of that pressure will be eased.
- Lifestyle changes: Diet and exercise are two of the most important lifestyle changes to make in order to improve acid reflux symptoms, but there are other small adjustments that can help as well. Examples include quitting smoking, avoiding tight clothing, or elevating the head of the bed 6-8 inches so that acid is less likely to flow into the esophagus at night (when many people experience the worst heartburn).
- Medication: Over-the-counter antacids are one of the easiest and cheapest ways to get fast relief from heartburn; these products generally neutralize stomach acid so that it can’t cause as much irritation when reflux does happen. For more severe cases, H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors may be necessary; these medications reduce the amount of stomach acid that is actually produced.
- Surgery: For very severe chronic cases of GERD that haven’t been improved significantly by other means, surgery is an option. Some endoscopic procedures can potentially strengthen the muscles of the lower esophageal sphincter. Another procedure, known as fundoplication, involves wrapping part of the stomach around the lower esophagus as a means of strengthening the LES.
Contact Cary Gastro
Acid reflux is a common digestive problem, but it’s also one that has a number of treatments that anyone can do from the comfort of their own home. Exercise, when limited to low-impact movements, can be a great way to reduce acid reflux at the same time as promoting general health and wellness. If you’ve been experiencing acid reflux more frequently or with more severe symptoms, you may have developed GERD. To speak with a board-certified gastroenterologist, please contact Cary Gastro to request an appointment.