What is GERD? Understanding Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
Oh my GERD! Another acronym! GERD stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease. But still, what does that mean? Let’s break it down:
- Gastro- translates to stomach.
- Esophageal refers to the esophagus, the tube connecting your mouth to your stomach.
- Reflux is when a fluid flows backward in the body.
So, when you put it all together, gastroesophageal reflux disease is a condition in which acid from the stomach flows back into the esophagus.
Acid Reflux vs. Heartburn vs. GERD
Acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD are all terms that are often used interchangeably, but they’re all a little bit different. Remember, acid reflux means that stomach acid moves from the stomach back into the esophagus. Many people experience acid reflux from time to time, and this can be completely normal. However, if acid reflux occurs more than twice per week, signs may be pointing towards GERD, a more chronic condition. Heartburn is a common symptom of both acid reflux and GERD. Still, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart – when stomach acid flows up into the esophagus, it can cause a burning sensation that you feel in your chest. Some additional symptoms of GERD include difficulty swallowing, bad breath, chest pain, regurgitation of food or sour liquid, and a sensation of food caught in your throat.
What causes GERD?
It all comes down to a muscle at the end of your esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). When you swallow, the LES relaxes to allow food to pass into the stomach, then closes afterward. Sometimes, this muscle becomes weak or doesn’t close properly, which allows stomach contents to rise back up into the esophagus. Enter acid reflux.
Certain conditions may also increase the risk of GERD:
- Hiatal hernia
- Delayed stomach emptying
Treatment for GERD
In more severe cases, surgical procedures can be used to treat GERD. However, most find relief with a combination of lifestyle changes and medication.
Diet and lifestyle are often the first line of defense against GERD. Here are the top diet and lifestyle modifications to help manage symptoms:
- Maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight can put pressure on the stomach and increase acid reflux.
- Avoid smoking. Nicotine from tobacco relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, which can lead to acid reflux.
- Don’t go to bed right after eating. Wait at least 2-3 hours after a meal before you lie down. If you still experience reflux overnight, try elevating the head of your bed 6-8 inches with blocks under the feet of your bed or a wedge under the mattress. Unfortunately, extra pillows won’t do the trick.
- Avoid your trigger foods. Some common foods that aggravate GERD symptoms are caffeinated beverages (coffee, tea, soda), alcohol, tomato products, citrus fruits, chocolate, peppermint, spicy foods, and fatty foods. But remember, everyone is different, and some foods may affect you more than others, so try keeping a log of the foods that trigger your symptoms.
When lifestyle changes aren’t enough, medication can join the team to help combat GERD. H2 blockers, like Pepcid and Zantac, work to reduce stomach acid production and help relieve heartburn. Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are even stronger acid blockers that give the esophageal tissues extra time to heal. Protonix, Prilosec, Nexium, and Prevacid are all examples of PPIs. Most of these are available in an over-the-counter version, but if your symptoms persist, your doctor may offer a prescription-strength medication to finish the job.
These medications can play an important role in improving your quality of life, but be aware that prolonged use of PPIs can lead to low vitamin B12 and magnesium levels.* Both nutrients are essential for proper cell and nerve function in the body, so don’t get caught without enough of them!* Be proactive – choose magnesium-rich foods like nuts, seeds, beans, and avocado, and include meat, eggs, dairy products, and fortified cereals to improve your vitamin B12 intake. Ask your healthcare provider whether you need to take a vitamin B12 and magnesium supplement to meet your needs.
GERD itself isn’t life-threatening, but long-term GERD can lead to more serious health conditions. Make sure you’re proactive in your care and address any concerns you may have with your physician. If your regimen includes medication, keep our diet and lifestyle tips in mind for extra relief, and be sure to get enough vitamin B12 and magnesium to help you stay energized and ready to take on another day, all while keeping acid at bay.*
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