Changes You Can Make to Get GERD Under Control

There is a reason there are so many drug commercials on acid reflux and GERD, largely because over 20 percent of the total population in the United States suffers from it. Since my patients are constantly bombarded with ads I wanted to give a quick overview of the ins and outs of GERD.

What Is GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a chronic (long-term) digestive disorder where stomach acids and sometimes stomach content (food, liquid) or bile frequently flows back (refluxes) to the esophagus (food pipe).

This backflow of stomach acids is known as an acid reflux. It occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a ring-like structure made up of muscles located at the bottom of the esophagus, becomes weak or when it relaxes abnormally. The lower esophageal sphincter is supposed to relax and open to let the food and liquid move down from the esophagus to the stomach and is expected to close after.

With GERD, the LES does not close completely, resulting in backflow of stomach acids and content that causes irritation to your esophagus. Those who have a high risk of developing gastroesophageal disease are people who are obese, pregnant, a smoker or have the following health conditions: asthma, diabetes, delayed stomach emptying and connective tissue disorders (i.e. scleroderma).

Signs and Symptoms of GERD

The most common GERD symptoms are acid reflux and heartburn.

Although these are the most common symptoms, GERD can present in other ways which do not initially seem like reflux.

Your gastroenterologist or GERD specialist may consider other symptoms that could be a manifestation of GERD. Below are a few symptoms that may be caused by GERD:

  • Acid Reflux – regurgitation of food or sour liquid
  • Heartburn – a burning sensation in your chest
  • Chest pain
  • Problems with swallowing
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Burping
  • Bloating
  • Hoarseness
  • Nausea
  • Sinus problems
  • Sleep apnea

These symptoms of GERD can be mild to severe. The goal in treating GERD is to eliminate the symptoms that cause it. Unfortunately, in many patients, GERD is a chronic relapsing disease. In these cases, long-term maintenance is the key to treatment and can begin with lifestyle changes.

What You Can Do to Control GERD

The most common lifestyle changes recommended for patients suffering from GERD are:

  • Change your diet: Learn to avoid foods that trigger heartburn, such as those containing caffeine, alcohol, and acids.
  • Wait 2-3 hours after eating before lying down: This gives the foods a chance to digest and empty from your stomach and acid levels a chance to decrease.
  • Elevate the head of your bed: This allows for the acids to flow down instead of up into the esophagus.
  • Don’t smoke: Nicotine, the main ingredients in cigarettes, may weaken the LES, allowing for stomach acids to reflux into the esophagus.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Losing weight may help to reduce heartburn symptoms.
  • Workout wisely: Wait at least two hours after eating before you do any major physical activity.

If these lifestyle changes don’t eliminate your heartburn symptoms, then your gastroenterologist may recommend certain medications. The most common medications used to treat GERD are H2 Blockers and proton pump inhibitors. Over-the-counter medications that control acid, together with lifestyle and dietary changes, usually are effective in controlling mild cases of GERD.  However, prescription-strength medications and surgery may be recommended for severe cases of gastroesophageal reflux disease. 

If you suffer from any of the GERD symptoms described above, it is recommended that you consult a gastroenterologist.  Early treatment is essential whether your symptoms are mild or severe.  If gastroesophageal reflux disease is left untreated, it has the potential to cause further complications such as; erosive esophagitis, Barrett’ s esophagus, esophageal stricture, asthma, as well as others. 

Keep in mind that all those TV commercials make light of heartburn and GERD, but something more serious could be going on so it is important to discuss any of the above symptoms with your doctor. 

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