Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is becoming more and more common. The diagnosis of GERD usually means that a larger problem is present. Most GERD sufferers are overweight, have poor eating habits, or do not get enough exercise. In fact, GERD is so easy to contract because of the way that modern lifestyles don’t encourage a healthy diet and regular physical activity.
However, GERD is a very serious disease and can lead to deadly conditions such as esophageal cancer, if it is left untreated. Treatment of GERD doesn’t mean taking antacids regularly. If you find you are taking antacids once a week or more often, tell your doctor immediately because you probably have GERD.
Antacids make you feel better when you have heartburn. This is because heartburn is caused by stomach acid that has been allowed up into the esophagus, acid reflux, by a malfunctioning lower esophageal sphincter. An antacid will neutralize the acids in the esophagus and stomach, relieving pain quite quickly. If an antacid does not relieve the pain of heartburn, it is possible you are suffering from the opposite condition, an overly alkaline stomach. High alkalinity can cause the same symptoms as GERD, but the result of taking antacids will be more pain, like putting wood on a fire.
The problems of GERD are a combination of unhealthy conditions. Usually, GERD sufferers have overly acidic stomach contents. This can be due to eating foods that are highly acidic but that the stomach does not know what to do with, like sodas, caffeine, and alcohol. Other foods that the stomach has a hard time with will cause the stomach to produce extra acid to break down the food. Highly processed foods, like potato chips, packaged cookies, and other snack foods, are very hard for the stomach to break down, so it will produce additional acid. Large meals will also trigger an increase in acid production.
These things can also cause the second problem that GERD sufferers have, which is a malfunctioning lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is a muscle that connects the esophagus to the stomach. When food is swallowed and comes down the esophagus, the LES opens to allow it through. When the food is safely in the stomach, the LES closes again so that stomach contents do not move back into the esophagus. Foods that cause high acidity in the stomach can also irritate the LES, causing it to malfunction or function irregularly. Caffeine, alcohol, tobacco products, and medications also cause the LES to be unpredictable, and muscle tone seems to be effected by ingesting many medications.
Overeating will also put pressure on the LES, as the stomach when it is overly full pushes food in every direction. Similarly, being overweight puts pressure on the abdomen, and can cause malfunction of the LES. Even wearing a tight belt or tight clothing can put pressure on the digestive system in a way that makes malfunction more likely to occur.
Holistic Approaches to Treating GERD
While many doctors will attempt to use medication to decrease the symptoms of GERD, treating the symptoms can be even more dangerous if the cause is not also addressed. Most medications available do not cure GERD, nor do they treat the cause of GERD. You can take medication to inhibit the production of stomach acid, but this can often cause inefficiencies in the digestive system. Without enough stomach acid, your body will not properly break down foods.
So while medications are safe to treat symptoms temporarily, the holistic way to ensure good health is to look at overall health. The most important factor when considering a problem in the digestive system is to look at what you eat. Start eating fresh foods, eat small meals, and don’t eat dinner fewer than 3 hours before bedtime. Avoid foods that increase acid production in the stomach and start eating foods that help the body to properly digest foods on its own.
Some foods that many people find helpful are apples, apple cider vinegar, and yogurt. Lavender and licorice can have a positive effect as well. However, if you continue to eat an unhealthy diet high in refined sugar, unhealthy fats, caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco products you will not help cure GERD.
Dangers of Untreated GERD
GERD may seem like a relatively danger-free disease, if you only consider the initial symptoms. Many people suffer seriously from recurring acid reflux, but they may consider a treatment of the symptoms sufficient to go on with their lives. This can be very dangerous.
Repeated exposure to acids from the stomach can cause serious damage to the esophagus. Lesions or ulcers can appear in the esophagus, making eating uncomfortable and increasing the risk of infection. If allowed to continue, patients develop esophagitis, an inflamed and irritated esophagus which can make swallowing difficult and very painful. Further along, patients develop Barrett’s esophagus, which is a reaction to constant bombardment from acids. The delicate, soft tissues of the esophageal lining start to harden and change to protect themselves. Patients with Barrett’s esophagus experience extreme pain while swallowing and tend to stop eating enough, causing rapid weight loss and even malnutrition.
Most dangerous is the development of esophageal cancer, which is not uncommon among people who ignore symptoms of GERD. Esophageal cancer has a very bleak prognosis. Most patients live approximately 18 months once they are diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
Do not wait until you have trouble swallowing, contact your doctor as soon as you notice repeated heartburn. Heartburn once a week is too often, and will cause damage to the esophagus. Any symptoms which recur should be reported to your doctor, even if you don’t think they are related or serious. Early detection and diagnosis of GERD is the best way to avoid serious complications.
Start today by caring for your entire body and overall health. Eat small meals, make fresh foods, and exercise regularly. You may find that health is the way to happiness.