Like many of my patients, you sometimes get the occasional case of heartburn after you had a few dietary indiscretions during the day with chocolate, tomato-based foods, alcohol, spicy garlic or onion heavy foods. Heartburn may even occasionally keep you awake at night!
However, when heartburn occurs more than only occasionally, and you find yourself spending many nights awake burping up hot acid into your throat, you may actually have acid reflux disease. It has the same symptoms as common heartburn but it is caused by something more than the occasional dietary lapse. Here’s what I tell my patients about acid reflux.
What Is Acid Reflux?
At the base of your stomach, there is a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter, or the LES, as known by its medical abbreviation. When we eat heavy, oily foods, or even too much peppermint, the LES can relax too much and not close properly during digestion.
The open LES can allow partially digested food to then back up into the stomach and even up the esophagus in a hot acid fluid. Sometimes this fluid can back all the way up to the throat causing a very uncomfortable burning sensation and a taste of something very sour.
Long-term, unchecked acid reflux like this can contribute to a chronic sore throat and hoarse-sounding voice. This is from the acid actually damaging the tissues of the larynx and the throat. Here are some other symptoms attributed to chronic acid reflux that may surprise you:
- Chronic hiccups, burping – you swallow air trying to keep regurgitated food down.
- Bloody stool – acid can also cause irritation and bleeding along the intestinal tract.
- Sinus congestion – mucus protects the lining of your sinuses. Acid can back so far up the throat that it stimulates mucus production in response to the irritating agent.
- Chronic cough – sometimes the acid reflux backs up droplets into the lungs causing irritation and a chronic cough trying to expel the fluid.
What Causes Acid Reflux?
In addition to the same dietary over-indulgences that bring on heartburn, there are several non-food things that can contribute to acid reflux:
- Muscle relaxants – like ibuprofen, also relax the LES muscles and keep the valve open.
- Aspirin – causes irritation of the stomach.
- Your health – conditions like diabetes, pregnancy, and stress can aggravate acid reflux by loosening the LES and overproducing digestive acids.
- Smoking – stimulates digestive juices.
- Retiring too soon after eating – lying down on the couch or going to bed after eating a big meal can create acid reflux. Engage in some mild-to-moderate exercise for at least 30 minutes after finishing eating, like walking or bicycling, even mowing the lawn, to stimulate your metabolism and help food digest faster.
What Can You Do To Stop Acid Reflux?
Avoiding the dietary and non-dietary triggers mentioned above can help you prevent a case of acid reflux. Over-the counter acid reducers like famotidine can help short term. However, here are some natural things you can do to also help get rid of a case of acid reflux and stop it from keeping you awake all night:
- Drink plain, filtered water – lots of it, at onset of acid reflux. Water dilutes the acid and helps move heavy, digested food out of the stomach.
- Green, “Granny Smith” apple – they contain strong malic acid that help counteract sour digestive acids and soothe irritation. Eating one of these after a heavy dinner can help you digest your food. Eating one at the first sign of acid can also help stop the attack in its tracks.
- Apple Cider Vinegar – an “old wives” remedy for acid reflux. 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar in cool water has given many near instant relief.
- Natural Black Licorice – deglycyrrhized licorice lozenges found in health food stores is good to keep on hand. It stimulates production of mucus that protects the digestive tract. The anti-inflammatory properties heal inflamed tissues and prevent further damage.
- Ginger – long used for digestive upsets, tea or lozenges (found in health food stores), helps neutralize digestive acids.
- Aloe vera – the soothing properties help stop acid burn of the esophagus, throat and stomach.
- Baking soda – long a favorite remedy, ½ tsp baking soda in 12 oz of water can help neutralize the acidic environment in your stomach and esophagus.
Acid reflux can be painful and cause you to lose sleep and not be able to function very well the next day. At worst, chronic acid reflux can seriously damage tissues inside your stomach, esophagus, lungs, throat and mouth, causing chronic inflammation, leaving them open to bacterial infections and other serious disease like ulcers and even cancer.
Following the natural recommendations for treating acid reflux can help you get rid of a painful case of acid reflux when it occurs. However, you really want to try and prevent acid reflux from becoming a common occurrence in your life. Stay away from the things that can trigger acid reflux episodes so you can get a good night’s sleep!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.