There’s nothing fun about heartburn. The burning sensation that starts behind your breastbone and moves toward your throat is painful, and while everyone experiences it occasionally, chronic heartburn—also known as acid reflux—can cause long-term health complications. Here’s everything you need to know about what acid reflux is, what causes it, and how you can prevent it.
What is Acid Reflux?
There’s a valve at the top of your stomach called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) that opens to let food through, and then closes behind it. When the LES fails to fully close, or if it opens too often, the acid in your stomach moves up into the esophagus. Unlike your stomach, which has a natural layer of protection from the acid, your esophagus is not equipped to handle this, causing the intense “heartburn” sensation.
While occasional acid reflux is normal and harmless, chronic acid reflux can be harmful. Chronic acid reflux is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and if left untreated can lead to swelling and narrowing of your esophagus, damaged vocal chords, or in some cases, increased chances of throat cancer.
What Causes Acid Reflux?
There are multiple factors that can cause acid reflux, including:
- Failure of the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES)
- Lying down immediately following a large meal
- Snacking near bedtime
- Regular use of blood pressure medications, certain muscle relaxers, ibuprofen, or aspirin
- Eating certain foods, such as chocolate, garlic, onions, spicy or fatty foods, and anything with citrus
- Frequently drinking carbonated beverages, coffee, tea, or alcohol
Another possible cause of acid reflux is an abnormality known as a hiatal hernia. In this case the LES and upper stomach area actually move above the separation between your chest and stomach (the diaphragm) and the hernia allows acid to move straight into the esophagus.
How Can I Prevent Acid Reflux?
One of the most effective ways to eliminate acid reflux is to avoid food and beverages that trigger the symptoms. Take a look at the list above and keep track of which dietary choices seem to correlate with acid reflux.
There are several other changes that can reduce acid reflux as well. Too much food in the stomach puts pressure on the LES. You can prevent this by eating smaller portions of food more frequently throughout the day.
Both smoking and frequent alcohol use are strongly connected to acid reflux. Those who quit smoking, and scale back or eliminate alcohol, often find their acid reflux drastically reduced.
If you nap during the day, consider napping in a chair that elevates your upper body, keeping your stomach acids from pressing against your LES. Similarly, use multiple pillows or a foam block at night. Elevating your head 4-6 inches may reduce acid reflux as well.
Make sure there’s a 2-3 hour buffer between eating and sleeping. Your body releases extra acids to process food. Waiting until the food is digested lowers your acid levels. Avoid wearing clothes or belts that are tight around the waist. Pressure on the outside of the stomach may be contributing to acid slipping past your LES.
And, as always, losing weight and exercising are the ideal solution for your long-term health in every area. Excess weight around the stomach creates increased pressure, which can cause acid leakage and exercising plays a vital role in weight loss.
Further Steps for Treating Acid Reflux
If the above changes don’t eliminate most of your acid reflux, it’s time to see a doctor and examine other potential solutions including foaming agents that prevent reflux by coating your stomach, proton pump inhibitors that cut down the amount of acid your stomach produces, or prokinetics, which reduce acid reflux by emptying your stomach faster and strengthen your LES.
In some rare cases, when these medications don’t work, your doctor could recommend surgery as a possible solution. One procedure that has been recently approved involves the insertion of a ring at the bottom of the esophagus. Another procedure involves wrapping the upper stomach around the LES to help strengthen it. Both of these options are rare, but in extreme cases can help you reestablish your quality of life.
Contact Us About Your Acid Reflux
You don’t have to grit your teeth and push through your acid reflux. Don't suffer in silence any longer. Make an appointment with Dr. Sameer Islam to discuss the best options for helping you reduce your acid reflux. You can use this form to request an appointment.