Having occasional heartburn is something most people can relate to, especially since it is one of the most common gastrointestinal symptoms. Usually when people experience heartburn, they either wait it out or use an over-the-counter antacid. But for some, occasional heartburn can become frequent heartburn, and frequent heartburn can become chronic heartburn, which is otherwise known as gastroesophageal reflux disease. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, you might have to see a gastroenterologist for treatment, but there are also a number of home remedies that can bring heartburn relief.
What is GERD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic digestive system disorder characterized by the backflow of stomach acid and sometimes stomach contents into the esophagus. The basic mechanism of GERD is the improper functioning of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a ring-like muscle that separates the esophagus from the stomach. When stomach acid or other contents are able to flow back up into the esophagus, they can irritate the lining of the esophagus and cause a variety of other symptoms.
Another way of looking at GERD is that it is the chronic version of GER (gastroesophageal reflux), which itself is the technical term for acid reflux or heartburn. Having a bout of heartburn every once in a while is a common experience for most people. But for others the heartburn becomes more regular, and eventually it can become a chronic condition that is harder to treat without the help of a healthcare professional. Moreover, if untreated, GERD can begin to cause permanent damage to the body.
Symptoms of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
The symptoms of GERD can vary from person to person, both in terms of frequency and intensity. It’s also possible to have GERD without experiencing any symptoms at all. In general, though, there are several potential signs and symptoms of GERD:
- Heartburn: The defining symptom is of course heartburn, the burning sensation and pain that can be felt in the center of the chest. This can sometimes be mistaken for pain related to the heart.
- Regurgitation: The nature of acid reflux is that stomach contents flow back up the esophagus, but with regurgitation the contents can keep traveling until they are felt (and, unpleasantly, tasted) in the back of the throat.
- Dysphagia: Difficulty swallowing or a feeling of food getting stuck in the esophagus.
- Coughing or sore throat: Sometimes a side effect of GERD on the pharynx is a persistent, dry cough or sore throat not associated with an infection or other apparent cause.
- Laryngitis: Inflammation of the voice box (larynx) can lead to hoarseness or loss of voice.
- Asthma: GERD can exacerbate or trigger asthma symptoms, such as coughing and wheezing.
- Dental problems: The acid from the stomach can erode tooth enamel and increase the risk of cavities or other dental problems.
What Causes GERD?
Even though GERD can be defined by having chronic heartburn, it’s also accurate to say that GERD is caused by chronic heartburn. The truth is that the line between the two isn’t very clear, but the most mild cases of GERD can be diagnosed based on one or two instances of heartburn in a month. The underlying cause, however, is the weakening or dysfunction of the lower esophageal sphincter; below are some risk factors that can weaken the LES and cause heartburn:
- Diet: When and what we eat are both significant factors in heartburn and the development of GERD. Some “trigger foods” that can cause heartburn are spicy foods, fatty foods, or acidic foods; examples include citrus fruits, chocolate, tomato sauces, onions, peppermint, or apple cider vinegar.
- Smoking and alcohol: Both alcohol and smoking, in addition to being bad for health in a general sense, can also weaken the LES and make acid reflux more likely.
- Medication: Certain medications, like sedatives, antidepressants, and calcium channel blockers (for high blood pressure) can either unintentionally relax the LES or cause irritation to the lining of the esophagus.
- Obesity: Obesity has long been associated with heartburn and GERD because of the effect of carrying extra weight in the midsection. The added weight in the abdomen can put pressure on the digestive tract, and this can cause the LES to not close properly. A similar problem can occur for women during pregnancy.
- Lifestyle: Other lifestyle factors, like wearing tight clothing, can also put pressure on the LES. It is also possible for problems to arise by laying or bending over a lot right after a meal.
- Hiatal hernia: While somewhat rare, a hiatal hernia can also cause problems for the functioning of the lower esophageal sphincter.
At-Home Treatment Options for GERD
Having a bit of heartburn every once in a while isn’t so bad, but when it becomes a chronic problem, the symptoms can be a challenge. Fortunately most people are able to control or manage the symptoms of GERD by making some key lifestyle changes. In fact, some of these at-home remedies may even finally cure it:
- Dietary changes: One of the most effective changes you can make is adjusting your diet and reducing or removing trigger foods as well as caffeine and carbonated beverages. It may require a bit of trial and error to figure out which specific foods are a trigger for you.
- Smaller meals: Instead of the traditional three large meals, opt for smaller, more frequent meals; eating a smaller volume of food at each meal can reduce the pressure on your lower esophageal sphincter.
- After eating: After eating, try to avoid laying down or bending over too much. Also, chewing gum after eating can increase saliva production and thus neutralize some of the stomach acid.
- Sleep changes: Sleeping with the head of your bed raised (typically with some kind of wedge pillow) essentially uses gravity to keep stomach acid from flowing up into the esophagus. Also, because of how the LES is positioned in relation to the stomach, it can also be helpful to sleep on your left side.
- Lose weight: As noted above, carrying extra body weight can increase pressure on the LES, so one of the ways to relieve this pressure is through weight loss.
- OTC medications: In addition to antacids, there are now over-the-counter versions of many drugs that can help either neutralize stomach acid or reduce acid production. Examples of such medication include proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers.
- Additional methods: There are a number of dietary supplements like licorice root tea or aloe vera juice that some claim to be beneficial for GERD, but more research is needed. There are also some who recommend a mixture of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and water, but this is really only helpful for occasional acute cases of heartburn.
Cary Gastroenterology: Request an Appointment
Most of the time, GERD is more of an annoyance than anything, but if left untreated it can cause permanent damage and lead to other gastrointestinal problems. At Cary Gastro, we are passionate about providing excellent healthcare and medical advice so you can avoid such problems and maintain a high quality of life. If you have been experiencing any of the symptoms noted above, or if you have other symptoms you can’t identify, contact us today to request an appointment.