What is Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD) Disease?
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease is also known as GERD. It is a health problem that starts when acid and sometimes bile from the stomach flow backwards or reflux into the esophagus or throat. When you swallow the esophagus allows the food to go into the stomach.
GERD is not a once-in-a-while case of heartburn. It’s a disease that has symptoms on a daily basis that can cause long term and serious health problems.
When the stomach acid flows into the esophagus it can damage and irritate the esophagageal lining and the surrounding areas. This reflux of acid can cause symptoms that include light discomfort often described as heartburn to more severe pain and tenderness.
The signs and symptoms of GERD might include:
- Regurgitation or back flow of food or sour liquid that can leave a bad taste in your mouth.
- Chest pain that worsens as you lay down. This can be a burning sensation that may extend into the throat.
- Swallowing can become difficult or painful.
- Coughing, asthma attacks, or wheezing, which can result in breathing difficulties or problems with your lungs.
- Often your throat will become sore and may cause hoarseness when speaking.
- Heart pain or discomfort that can manifest as pressure, a heaviness or weight across the chest, or as a tightening in the chest area. It may even feel like you are being squeezed.
- After finishing some type of physical activity, GERD may also show itself as a dull ache.
What Causes GERD?
If you don’t have GERD, the lower esophageal sphincter, which is a small band of muscle that encircles the lower part of the esophagus, will relax and allow food and liquid to pass into the stomach when you swallow. Once the food and liquid has passed through, this valve will close. For a variety of reasons this band of muscles can quit working right, weakening or functioning abnormally, allowing stomach acid to flow back into the esophagus.
The more this occurs the more damage can be caused. Over time this acid backup can do more than cause irritation and inflammation. This process can eventually erode the esophagus making it difficult to swallow and even cause bleeding and the area to narrow.
This condition can be caused by many factors. There are foods that can make the condition worse as does obesity, pregnancy, diabetes and having a Hiatal Hernia. Being overweight or pregnant can exert more pressure on the stomach and diaphragm. Extreme overeating can do the same thing. This extra pressure may cause the valve to relax and allow the spill of acid into the esophagus. Pregnancy also causes the body to release hormones that can cause the muscles to relax which may compound the problem.
Putting pressure on the stomach and diaphragm is why the symptoms of GERD are more pronounced when you are lying down or bent over. Medications like sedatives and calcium channel blockers might also trigger GERD. Smoking and alcohol consumption can also contribute to GERD.
Doctors will often diagnose heartburn simply from a list of manifesting symptoms. More severe symptoms and heartburn that doesn’t readily react to treatment may require additional testing. GERD diagnostic testing may include the use of barium X-rays. This type of X-ray provides the doctor with visual proof of the physical state of the esophagus. It will also check the stomach and upper intestine. Often this type of test will indicate or rule out the possibility of a hiatal hernia.
Additional tests that can be used in the diagnosis of GERD include:
- Ambulatory acid (pH) probe – which will gauge the acidity level of stomach acid
- Upper gastrointestinal Xrays – which will explore the upper digestive system
- Esophageal impedance test – which will gauge the levels and amounts of refluxed gas or liquid
For an online quiz to help you determine if you might have GERD and to help you figure out what to tell your doctor about your symptoms, see here.
Natural Help for GERD
If you have or think you might have GERD, there are things you can do to help with the symptoms. Eat smaller meals, quit smoking and watch your alcohol consumption. All of these are good ways to start. Some foods seem to trigger heartburn or GERD, so limiting consumption of fatty or fried foods, spicy food, chocolate, peppermint, garlic and onions may also help reduce this health concern. You can also try natural remedies that include Chamomile tea, Fennel and Lemon Balm teas.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease is typically a chronic condition which means that once you have it, you can control the symptoms but never really get rid of it. It is also important to note that even if you cure the damaged esophagus with treatment, once the treatment is finished it may return within a few months. Life style changes such as smoking cessation or weight loss and change in diet can help increase the chances of healing and decrease the occurrences of GERD.