Remember when you used to take Pepto-Bismol for digestion problems? Things have certainly changed since those years. Soon doctors were recommending Antacids like Mylanta and Maalox for common heartburn. Then the discovery of the drug Tagamet came along.
For years Americans have been suffering with heartburn and now we have progressed to yet another level with a new disease and more drugs.
It’s called Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. GERD is usually associated with heartburn, or a burning sensation in the chest located behind the breastbone. Five to seven percent of the population experiences this symptom once every day, and nearly 20% of people get heartburn once a week, according to a study in the journal, Gastroenterology.
GERD Is Not Caused By What You Eat
Before we discuss treating the symptoms of GERD, let’s take a closer look at the condition. You may be surprised to find out that your lifestyle choices do not cause GERD. It is a chronic disease that causes symptoms like heartburn, acid reflux and painful swallowing. Eating too many fried foods or drinking too much alcohol do not cause the disease, although they may aggravate your symptoms.
In my studies I noticed that researchers have not pinpointed one single cause of GERD, but in people with this condition, the lower esophageal sphincter is unable to keep stomach acid from flowing (or “refluxing”) back into the esophagus. In individuals with erosive GERD, this acid damages the tissue of the esophagus. Most people, however, will experience non-erosive GERD, characterized only by the symptoms I mentioned above.
If you regularly experience heartburn, GERD may be to blame. It is important to see a doctor for a diagnosis because, left untreated, GERD can lead to more serious conditions like inflammation and stricture of the esophagus, or Barrett’s Esophagus, a pre-cancerous condition.
Take a Look at Your Diet to Ease Symptoms
Once you’ve seen your doctor to determine if GERD is to blame for heartburn and acid reflux, you can start taking steps to avoid these symptoms as much as possible. There is no cure for GERD, but working with your doctor and making a few simple changes can make the condition very manageable.
I mentioned fried foods as one trigger that typically causes symptoms in many people. Other common trigger foods are onions, chocolate and acidic drinks like coffee, citrus juices and tomato juice. Alcohol is another culprit because it upsets your stomach by stimulating acid production, and it irritates the esophagus. Be mindful of what you eat and how it makes you feel afterwards. If you suspect a certain food is causing discomfort, stop eating it for a week and see how you feel. If you don’t experience any symptoms, that food was probably the troublemaker and should be eliminated from your diet.
Simple Lifestyle Changes to Try
The way you eat can be just as important as what you eat when it comes to treating the symptoms of GERD. I often tell my patients to not only look at what is on their plates, but also at their surroundings when it comes to mealtimes. Are there distractions like the television, energetic children or a pile of work sitting on the dining room table? Do you feel so stressed and anxious most nights that you barely notice what your food tastes like? Are you often jumping up to do something in the kitchen or answer the phone?
If you’re answering yes to any of these questions, try making some changes in your eating routines. Make it a point to turn off distractions, get the kids settled and relax so you can focus on enjoying the food in front of you. Take your time so you will be able to tell when your body is full. Overeating is a common cause of heartburn, too.
Perhaps the easiest piece of advice to put into practice is to stay upright while eating and until your meal is completely digested. This means no eating while lying on the couch and having your last bite of food three hours before bedtime. If you like to have dessert after dinner, eat a little earlier and follow your meal with a light treat. If you do get heartburn in bed at night, try sleeping on a wedge shaped pillow so your esophagus is above your stomach.
One last thing to look at after you modify your eating habits is your waistline. If you have too much excess fat around your abdomen, it can put pressure on the stomach, causing reflux.
Put this advice into practice today if you are experiencing the symptoms of GERD, and don’t forget to talk to your doctor about a complete treatment program tailored to your individual needs.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.