By Dr. Peter Klapper Ph.D.
Picture this: You’re at your favorite restaurant that has the best spicy chicken sandwich. As you are finishing your satisfying course, you start to feel a burning sensation creep up into your chest and then into your throat resulting in fiery, uncomfortable symptoms. This is a result of acid reflux, and while most people will experience some level of acid reflux in their life, those with chronic acid reflux or GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease) represent more than 20 percent of the US population. Occasional acid reflux is not comfortable, but those who suffer from it daily may notice it impacts their quality of life and are at risk for tissue damage. That said, it’s important to get your acid reflux under control.
In this guide, we will give you all the tips on how to not only recognize symptoms of such a prevalent disease such as acid reflux, but how to combat it with effective management strategies.
What Causes Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus and throat. This movement of acid typically brings pain, discomfort and a burning sensation, along with other irritating symptoms such as bloating, hiccups, difficulty swallowing or a feeling that there is lump in your throat.
As we stated above, many people experience acid reflux at some point in their life, but who is more at risk for chronic acid reflux? There are risk factors that can be solved by lifestyle changes, but others that are a result of a specific health condition. Those risk factors include:
Weak Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES): The LES is a muscular ring that separates the esophagus from the stomach, and if it is weak or relaxes at inappropriate times, it can allow stomach acid to flow back into the esophagus.
Hiatal Hernia: A hiatal hernia occurs when part of the stomach pushes upward through the diaphragm, the muscular barrier that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. The diaphragm has an opening called the hiatus, in which the esophagus passes before connecting to the stomach.
Obesity: Excess body weight, especially around the abdomen, can put pressure on the stomach and LES increasing the risk of acid reflux.
Pregnancy: Hormonal changes and increased pressure on the abdomen during pregnancy can contribute to acid reflux.
Medications: Certain medications, including some asthma medications, calcium channel blockers, antihistamines, sedatives, and antidepressants, may relax the LES or irritate the esophagus leading to acid reflux.
Lifestyle factors: If you find that you eat a lot of spicy or fried foods and drink a lot of alcoholic and carbonated beverages, you are more at risk for acid reflux. Fatty foods relax the LES and increase stomach acid production. Also, eating large meals and lying down shortly afterward trigger an episode.
Smoking: Smoking can weaken the LES and contribute to the development of acid reflux.
Recognizing The Symptoms: Common Signs of Acid Reflux
Acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can become apparent through a variety of symptoms. Common symptoms of acid reflux include:
Heartburn: Heartburn is characterized as a burning sensation or discomfort in the chest, usually behind the breastbone and is one of the most notable symptoms of acid reflux. The pain often radiates mid-chest, giving the illusion that the origin of the pain is in the thoracic wall. Heartburn typically includes a feeling of fullness, burping frequently, bloating and difficulty swallowing.
Regurgitation: Another notable symptom of acid reflux is regurgitation. Especially after meal consumption, which can feel like liquid is backwashing into your throat, met with a sour taste of acid.
Chest pain: GERD-related chest pain may be more intense than typical heartburn and can sometimes be mistaken for heart-related chest pain.
Chronic cough: A chronic cough, especially if it worsens at night, can be a sign of acid reflux irritating the throat.
Voice Hoarseness: Irritation of the vocal cords can lead to hoarseness or changes in voice quality.
GERD: If acid reflux symptoms persist and continue regularly, it may be more chronic and considered GERD. If you are having acid reflux symptoms more than twice a week for several weeks, it is typically a sign that the condition is severe due to the mechanisms in your body malfunctioning to keep acid out of your esophagus.
If your symptoms persist, it’s important to visit a gastroenterologist before your symptoms create any permanent damage. In order to evaluate your esophagus and diagnose, your doctor will run a series of procedures and tests including:
Endoscopy: A diagnostic procedure called an upper endoscopy may be performed. This involves the insertion of a flexible tube with a light and camera (endoscope) through the mouth and into the esophagus and stomach. It allows the doctor to visually inspect the lining of the esophagus for signs of inflammation or damage.
Esophageal pH Monitoring: This test measures the acid content inside your esophagus over a period of time by placing a small wireless receiver in your esophagus during an endoscopy. This receiver helps determine the frequency and duration of acid exposure in the esophagus.
Barium Swallow Radiography: A series of X-rays are taken after you swallow a barium solution. This helps identify abnormalities in the esophagus, such as hiatal hernias.
Esophageal Manometry: An esophageal manometry measures the muscle contractions of the esophagus using pressure sensors embedded in a nasogastric tube. It helps assess the function of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and to see if other muscles aren’t working correctly.
Prevention and Lifestyle Changes for Acid Reflux
Acid reflux can impact your quality of life, so it’s important to consider making changes to your lifestyle. Recommended lifestyle changes include:
Changing your diet
Specific foods trigger acid reflux, so it’s important to remove spicy, fatty, and fried foods from your diet. Other culprits include tomatoes, chocolate, citrus foods, alcohol, carbonated beverages, and caffeine. It’s also a good idea to opt for smaller meals throughout the day rather than three large meals to reduce the pressure on the LES and minimize overeating. Lastly, avoid those late-night snacks.
Managing Your Weight
As previously mentioned, excess weight can put pressure on the stomach and increase the risk of acid reflux. By incorporating regular exercise and instituting a healthy diet, your weight can become better managed and acid reflux relief should follow.
Be Mindful of Eating Habits
It’s important to give your stomach time to digest foods before lying down. Allow yourself at least two to three hours before your last meal before hitting the hay. When it is time for bed, consider elevating the head of your bed by six to eight inches. The gravity flow will help keep stomach acid from flowing into your throat and esophagus.
If lifestyle adjustments just aren’t cutting it for you, your doctor may consider prescribing you medications to help put out the burn. Common prescription medications include H2 blockers such as Zantac, Pepcid and Nizatidine which help reduce the production of stomach acid by blocking histamine receptors in the stomach lining. Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPI) are also commonly prescribed for more severe cases and are taken before meals in hopes to reduce acid production.
Over the counter medicine for acid reflux (antacids) are also a very popular way to treat symptoms. However, while known to neutralize stomach acid, antacids only provide short-term relief and are typically used for milder, occasional symptoms.
Common types of antacids include:
Calcium-based antacids: Tums and Rolaids react with stomach acid to form calcium, chloride, water, and carbon dioxide to neutralize excess stomach acid.
Aluminum-based antacids: Alternagel and Amphojel react with stomach acid to form aluminum chloride and water to neutralize excess acid.
Magnesium-based antacids: Maalox and Mylanta react with stomach acid to form magnesium chloride and water to neutralize excess acid.
Natural Remedies and Home Treatments
If you’re looking for a more natural approach to combating your heartburn symptoms, there are several natural remedies and home remedies for acid reflux to try.
- Chamomile Tea: Chamomile tea may have a calming effect on the digestive tract. For best results, drink it before bedtime or between meals.
- Licorice Root: Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) supplements may help soothe the esophagus. It's important to use DGL, as regular licorice can lead to increased blood pressure.
- Aloe Vera Juice: Aloe vera juice may help soothe and heal the esophagus.
- Slippery Elm: Slippery elm supplements or lozenges may help coat and soothe the esophagus.
- Ginger: Ginger is known for its natural anti-inflammatory properties and may help soothe the digestive tract.
- Apple Cider Vinegar: Mix 1-2 teaspoons of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar in a glass of water and drink it before your meal to help balance stomach acid levels.
- Marshmallow Root: The mucilage in marshmallow root may provide relief for throat symptoms from acid reflux. Plus, it’s anti-inflammatory properties may reduce inflammation in the digestive track.
- Forces of Nature “Heartburn and Acid Reflux Relief”: Our Heartburn natural medication rapidly reduces the intensity of burning from acid reflux and eases gaseous buildup within seconds of use. It can also be used as a preventative measure before the heartburn strikes.
Coping Strategies and Moving Forward
Chronic acid reflux can greatly impact your life and leave many individuals feeling hopeless, and if left untreated can permanently damage your esophagus. This is why it’s important to find ways to cope to improve your lifestyle moving forward. Coping strategies may include:
Keeping a Food Diary: By identifying your specific foods that trigger your acid reflux, you will be more educated on what will cause you agony. A diary can also help you be aware of times that you eat and the effect that it has on your body.
Use Antacids Correctly: While antacids can be effective with acute heartburn, popping them with any tinge of burn can actually cause you harm. The overuse of antacids can cause digestive issues, stomach cramps, and even kidney stones.
Avoid Tight Clothing: Clothing or belts that fits too tight, especially around the stomach, can force food upward. Invest in comfortable undergarments to give your stomach some relief.
Manage Your Stress: Like most conditions, stress makes GERD symptoms worse. Try and manage your stress with practices such as controlled breathing, yoga and meditation.
If you haven’t guessed already, it’s imperative to manage acid reflux to improve your everyday health. By recognizing acid reflux symptoms, addressing underlying causes and making lifestyle changes, you have the tools needed to be able to take back control of your life, and if your acid reflux is still not being managed, please consult a healthcare provider to receive an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan.
So, what are you waiting for? Today is the day to institute a proactive approach and make your life with acid reflux more manageable allowing you to enjoy a healthier and more comfortable lifestyle.