You may be among the millions of people who suffer from acid reflux and heartburn. Some reflux is normal and harmless, but when it happens frequently, it can burn the inside of your esophagus and lead to more serious problems. We’ll get to the bottom of what causes acid reflux, the symptoms associated with it, and acid reflux remedies that can help soothe the burn and provide you with much-needed relief.
What Is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux is a common condition that causes a burning sensation in your chest, especially following a meal. Often referred to as heartburn, acid reflux occurs when stomach acid that helps to break down your food travels back up into your esophagus, causing pain and irritation. Normally the valve that connects your food pipe to your stomach is effective at preventing backflow. If that valve is weakened or does not function properly, acid reflux results. Over 60 million Americans experience heartburn monthly, with nearly 15 million individuals suffering from symptoms on a daily basis.
Is It GERD?
You may hear acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) used interchangeably, and while they are related, they are not identical conditions. Acid reflux can happen from time to time, with a spicy or large meal being the culprit. However, when it becomes a chronic issue, popping up more than a couple times a week, it is defined as GERD. Being the most common digestive disorder in the United States, GERD can also cause chest pain, coughing, trouble swallowing and breathing, and the regurgitation of bitter tasting fluid. Symptoms are typically worse at night when you lie down to go to sleep.
What Causes Acid Reflux?
The gastric acid in your stomach is a powerful mixture of hydrochloric acid, enzymes for digestion, sodium chloride, and potassium chloride. When this irritating fluid flows back into the esophagus, especially on a frequent basis, the lining of your food pipe becomes inflamed and you feel that fiery burn.
Your esophagus has a built-in muscular valve known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) that allows food to pass to the stomach but keeps harmful contents from traveling back up. When the LES malfunctions, either by relaxing too often or not being strong enough to remain completely closed, acid reflux occurs.
Common Risk Factors
Acid reflux can affect a person of any age and can be tied to issues that occurred at birth, an underlying condition, or by certain lifestyle and diet choices. For instance, a hiatal hernia—a condition in which a section of the stomach protrudes into the muscle of the diaphragm—can lead to symptoms related to acid reflux and GERD. If you are obese, inactive or sedentary, smoke cigarettes, and take medication for other conditions, you may be at higher risk for GERD. You may also experience GERD during pregnancy, even if you have never had an issue in the past. Food moves through the esophagus at a slower rate when you are pregnant and your digestive system lags due to hormones. Plus, pressure from the growing baby on your stomach can cause stomach acid to head north back up the esophagus.
Diet and Acid Reflux
Certain foods and eating behaviors have been tied to heartburn and the occurence of acid reflux. Eating a very large meal and then laying down for a couple hours can cause issues with digestion and lead to reflux. Eating foods high in salt and fat and low in fiber can also lead to the development of this condition. Alcohol can play a role as well by causing the LES to greatly relax, increasing acid production in the stomach and preventing the clearance of acid from the esophagus. Even moderate intake of alcoholic drinks can lead to reflux symptoms according to research.
It is helpful to identify the foods that trigger your acid reflux so you know exactly what to avoid or to eat in very small amounts. These items may include:
- Food high in fat like potato chips, french fries, fried food, and cheese
- Spicy food
- Citrus fruits
- Onions, tomatoes, garlic
- Mint gum
Keeping a diary for several weeks can help you identify which foods may cause you problems, if there is a certain meal time that increases reflux, and other potential triggers.
Acid Reflux Symptoms
Heartburn is one of the most common symptoms of acid reflux and is either the result of a random occurrence or a chronic condition like GERD. You may feel an uncomfortable, persistent burn in your chest that worsens when you lean over or lie down. It typically arises after eating, when your stomach is full and busily breaking down your meal. If stomach acid travels far into the esophagus, you may feel burning and irritation in your throat and notice an unappealing taste in your mouth.
Other acid reflux symptoms include:
- Sore throat or hoarseness
- Chronic cough
- Nausea and vomiting
- Swallowing issues
- Pain in the chest or abdomen
- Bad breath
- Tooth decay
Acid Reflux Risks
When acid reflux becomes a chronic issue or you are diagnosed with GERD, it’s important to take stock of your food and lifestyle choices and seek assistance if necessary. Without treatment, GERD can lead to complications, including an increased risk of cancer. When your esophagus is exposed to stomach acid for prolonged periods of time, it can gradually damage the lining and lead to more serious issues down the road. These include:
Esophagitis: inflammation of the esophagus that leads to bleeding, severe irritation, and ulcers.
Strictures: occurs when chronic inflammation leads to scarring and blocks food from passing through the esophagus.
Barrett’s esophagus: the tissues and cells that line the esophagus are altered by the repeated irritation from stomach acid and raise their risk of becoming cancerous.
Acid Reflux Remedies
Managing the symptoms of acid reflux mainly involves learning what triggers the symptoms, avoiding these irritants, and making certain lifestyle changes to bring long-term relief. If you do experience an episode, here are a variety of treatments to ease indigestion and take the heat out of your heartburn.
If you experience acid reflux from time to time, you can try over-the-counter (OTC) medications, including:
Antacids: to help neutralize stomach acid.
H-2-receptor blockers: includes Pepcid AC and Tagamet HB to help lower the production of stomach acid for several hours.
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): medication such as Prilosec OTC to block the production of stomach acid, helping your esophagus recover from any damage.
OTC options to treat your acid reflux can be helpful for infrequent cases of heartburn and other symptoms, but should not be used for a chronic condition. Long-term use of PPIs can lower your vitamin B12 levels and lead to bone conditions like osteoporosis.
Natural Reflux Remedies
When heartburn strikes, several natural methods can help ease the pain and support your body so it can properly digest food. Include the following in your acid reflux diet.
Raw organic apple cider vinegar: This pantry staple can lower the pH in your stomach, raising the acidity to help break down food more efficiently and inhibiting gastric fluid from traveling back up the esophagus. Mix 1 tablespoon of high quality apple cider vinegar into water or tea and drink before eating.
Aloe vera: Not just for sunburns, aloe vera is commonly used to calm stomachaches, diarrhea, and pain caused by bowel conditions. You can also use this dietary supplement to boost digestive health and prevent heartburn.
Lemon juice: Even more powerful than vinegar, lemon juice can lower your stomach’s pH levels. Plus it contains vitamin C and other beneficial nutrients that support immune health. You can make your own mixture by juicing a lemon in a cup of water and drinking to prevent or calm reflux.
Baking soda: A house staple, baking soda helps to neutralize the acid in your stomach or esophagus. Baking soda can offer a quick fix when you’ve eaten something that is irritating your stomach and causing heartburn. It’s important not to rely on this solution for GERD as a long-term treatment since doing so can alter acid levels. Mix a half teaspoon of baking soda into a small glass of water and drink slowly. You can drink another glass of this mixture if after several minutes the pain persists.
In addition to controlling reflux symptoms with diet and nutrition, you can manage symptoms with lifestyle changes. Try to be active following a meal and avoid laying down for at least two hours to allow for proper digestion. It can also be helpful to lift the head of your bed several inches with books or blocks so that you can sleep at a diagonal. Also try sleeping on your left side to help reduce symptoms. Your esophagus attaches to your stomach on the right side and if you lay on your left side any gastric acid covers your LES valve. Acid may leak through and lead to reflux symptoms. Other lifestyle changes to eliminate discomfort due to reflux and GERD include losing excess pounds, eating smaller meals, and avoiding smoking and alcohol.
If you suspect that you have GERD, your signs and symptoms worsen, or you experience nausea, vomiting, or difficulty swallowing, be sure to talk to your doctor. Prescription medications may be needed to combat your symptoms. In a few cases, GERD may be treated with surgery or other procedures.