Heartburn is pretty common; most people will experience it now and then. If you are experiencing it repeatedly, it may be something a tad more serious - gastro-oesophageal reflux disease.
Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD or GORD depending on how your country spells oesophagus!) can be extremely unpleasant and hard to ignore. If you feel like you’re swallowing fire regularly, you might be suffering from GERD.
GERD occurs when stomach acid rises up into the oesophagus. This acid causes a burning sensation in the chest, throat and/or the back of the mouth. At the base of the oesophagus, some muscles open to let food into the stomach and close again to stop stomach acid from rising. GERD occurs when these muscles are weakened and not functioning correctly.1
What Causes GERD?
Although we know that the weakened muscles of the oesophagus are the reason GERD occurs, it’s not always clear what causes this muscle to weaken in each individual. Several factors can lead to weakened oesophageal muscles, and sometimes it is a combination of factors that causes the damage.1
Obesity or being overweight can be a factor in GERD occurring; excess pressure on the stomach can weaken the oesophageal muscles. Drinking alcohol, smoking, drinking coffee or eating chocolate can also contribute to GERD, as they all have the potential to over-relax the muscles at the bottom of the oesophagus.1
Eating a diet with many fatty foods can also contribute to GERD, as the stomach takes longer to get rid of stomach acid once it’s digested the fatty meal. The excess acid sitting in the stomach can then leak into the oesophagus. When this delay in getting rid of stomach acid happens generally, it is known as gastroparesis and can lead to GERD.1
Pregnancy can be a big risk factor in developing GERD due to the increased pressure on the stomach and changes in hormone levels. A hiatus hernia can also lead to GERD, as well as stress and certain medications such as calcium-channel blockers, nitrates and NSAIDs.1
Often, multiple members of the same family will suffer from GERD. This indicates that there could be a genetic factor in developing GERD, although the link is currently unknown.1
Symptoms of GERD
Symptoms of GERD include heartburn, chest or abdominal pain, difficulty swallowing, a feeling of a lump in the throat, and regurgitation of food or a sour liquid (acid). GERD can occur overnight, known as nighttime GERD. Symptoms include inflamed vocal cords, new or worsened asthma and an ongoing cough.2
If these symptoms are causing you to take over-the-counter heartburn medications more than twice a week, it’s important to see a doctor, as antacids can be unsafe if taken too often and are not intended for daily use. Your doctor can also run a series of tests to diagnose GERD and check for complications.3
Can you treat GERD?
When suffering from GERD, the first port of call is to look at changes you can make to your lifestyle that may alleviate symptoms. If you are obese or overweight, weight loss may help to limit GERD symptoms. Stopping smoking, binning the chocolate, removing fatty foods from your diet or cutting out alcohol and caffeine could help to stop symptoms, too.4
If lifestyle changes aren’t helping or you aren’t in a place to make those changes, then antacids can temporarily help symptoms. These can be bought over the counter without a prescription.
You can also purchase H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) to lower the amount of acid the stomach makes. PPIs can help to heal the oesophagus, although the long-term impact on the body is relatively unstudied, so it’s a good idea to consult your doctor about your choices for treatment.4
If you don’t want to take long-term medication or if the medication doesn’t help with your symptoms, you may need surgery to treat GERD. A few surgical options are available to help with GERD, and your doctor will recommend the best surgery option for you based on your circumstances.
How Can You Prevent GERD?
To prevent GERD from ever affecting you, it’s important not to cause unnecessary damage to your oesophageal muscles. Eating a healthy, balanced diet, avoiding trigger foods and substances and maintaining a healthy weight can help limit your risk of developing GERD.2
If you notice you are experiencing heartburn more frequently, it’s important to take steps to stop heartburn to prevent damage. Sleeping on your left side and having your bed’s head elevated can help stop reflux from occurring overnight.2
Eating slowly can also help prevent GERD, as you give your oesophagus and stomach more time to digest your food. Eating sitting up, and not lying down for at least three hours after eating will also help.2
Avoiding tight-fitting clothing can also help to prevent heartburn, as clothing that is tight on the abdomen can put unnecessary pressure on the muscles of the oesophagus. Limiting or stopping smoking and drinking alcohol will likely have the biggest impact on preventing GERD, as they both significantly increase your risk of acid reflux.2
Take Home Message
Preventing GERD before it happens is the best thing you can do to ensure you live comfortably, not in pain. Lifestyle changes may be necessary if you are starting to suffer from heartburn more regularly, and if you are concerned, speak to your doctor for advice on what to do.
Medications or surgery are options if GERD impacts your daily life; don’t suffer silently; get the help you need! Leaving GERD untreated can cause further damage, so managing symptoms when they arise is important.