Gastroesophageal reflux disease affects up to 20 percent of Americans every day, making it one of the most common medical conditions in the United States, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse website, digestive.niddk.nih.gov.
The causes of GERD include an abnormal lower esophageal sphincter, hiatal hernia, abnormal esophageal contractions and slow emptying of the stomach, according to the American Academy of Otolarynology — Head and Neck Surgery website, www.entnet.org.
“Gastroesophageal reflux disease occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter does not close properly and stomach contents reflux back up into the esophagus,” according to about.com.
“The lower esophageal sphincter is a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that acts like a valve between the esophagus and stomach,” according to kansassurgical.com.
The esophagus carries food from the mouth to the stomach and when this value is functioning properly, food and liquids pass into the stomach but the sphincter prevents them from coming back up into the esophagus. When the lower esophageal sphincter is weak or loose, stomach acids can back up into the esophagus.
“When refluxed stomach acid touches the lining of the esophagus, it may cause a burning sensation in the chest or throat, called heartburn or acid indigestion,” according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse website.
Heartburn every now and then is common, and having it occasionally does not necessarily mean you have GERD, according to the lapsurg.com, the Comprehensive Center for Laparoscopic Surgery. “Heartburn that occurs more than twice a week may be considered GERD, which can eventually lead to more serious health problems,” the website said.
GERD affects about 5-7 percent of the global population. This group experiences at least one episode of heartburn a day.
“Although common, GERD is often unrecognized — its symptoms misunderstood,” according to dorchesterhealth.org. A treatable disease when correctly diagnosed, serious complications can result when it is not treated properly. Signs and symptoms of GERD include the following:
• Burning sensation in the chest or throat
• Chronic cough
• Bitter taste in the mouth
“Certain conditions make a person more susceptible to GERD,” according to acid-reflux.com. “For example, GERD can be a serious problem during pregnancy. The elevated hormone levels of pregnancy probably cause reflux by lowering the pressure in the lower esophageal sphincter. At the same time, the growing fetus increases the pressure in the abdomen. Both of these effects would be expected to increase reflux.”
“Certain foods promote or worsen symptoms of acid reflux,” according to blog.foodfacts.com. “Citrus, tomato and coffee directly irritate the mucosa. Other foods to avoid include garlic, onions, fatty foods, spicy foods, mint, caffeinated drinks, peppermint, alcohol and chocolate. Overeating as well as going to bed within two to three hours of supper should be avoided since gastric distention promotes reflux.
“Weight gain and smoking have also been implicated in the pathogenesis of GERD and thus should be avoided,” the website continued. “Reflux symptoms may be reduced simply by elevating the head end of the bed or by using a wedge under the upper body.”
Other suggested lifestyle changes, according to heartburn.about.com, include the following:
• If you smoke, stop.
• Do not drink alcohol.
• Lose weight if needed.
• Eat small meals.
• Wear loose-fitting clothes.
• Avoid lying down for three hours after a meal. Gravity helps drain food and stomach acid into your stomach if you are sitting up.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.