Acid Reflux occurs when the acid in the stomach travels back into the oesophagus – the tube connecting the stomach and the throat – which results in a burning sensation in the lower chest area (heartburn), and sometimes a sour taste in the back of your throat. Most people have suffered from Acid Reflux at some point, but when it becomes a regular occurrence it is known as Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD or GORD).
How Does Acid Reflux Happen?
Acid Reflux happens when a ring of muscle known as the gastroesophageal sphincter, malfunctions. Normally, this muscle acts as a one-way valve, letting food pass down into the stomach but not back up into the oesophagus. The lining of the stomach is able to withstand the hydrochloric acid in the stomach, but the oesophagus is not, so when this acid travels back up, it results in the characteristic burning pain known as heartburn.
Symptoms of Acid Reflux
With occasional Acid Reflux, the classic symptom is heartburn. This burning sensation can last for several hours and tends to get worse after eating, and when the sufferer bends over or lies flat. If the acid reaches the back of the throat this can produce a sour or bitter taste in the mouth.
When Acid Reflux becomes GERD, symptoms can be more severe. These can include:
- nausea and vomiting
- sore throat
- bad breath
- pain on swallowing
- dental problems
- In some cases, GERD can cause recurrent bouts of pneumonia.
Who Gets Acid Reflux?
Anyone can get Acid Reflux, and most adults will experience it occasionally, especially after eating certain trigger foods, such as spicy foods, chocolate, citric fruits, alcohol, and coffee. But there are several risk factors which can contribute to your chances of developing Acid Reflux or GERD.
Obesity, or even just being overweight, can increase the chances of Acid Reflux as there is extra pressure being placed on the stomach, which can weaken the sphincter muscle at the bottom of the oesophagus.
A high-fat diet can be a huge trigger, as it takes much longer for the stomach to digest fatty foods, resulting in more stomach acid being produced. This excess acid is more prone to flowing back up into the oesophagus.
Pregnancy can cause Acid Reflux because the flood of hormones, coupled with the growing weight of the baby, can result in the lower oesophageal sphincter muscle relaxing and pressure being put on the muscles.
Hiatus Hernias can interfere with the function of the oesophageal sphincter, leaving the valve open and allowing the acid to flow back up.
Gastroparesis is a condition in which the stomach cannot empty its contents as quickly as it should. It can be caused by certain medical conditions such as Diabetes, Parkinson ’s disease, Scleroderma, and Amyloidosis. It can also happen as a result of bariatric surgery.
Medications can be a risk factor in developing Acid Reflux of GERD – for instance, antidepressants, opioid painkillers, NSAIDs, blood pressure tablets, and those used for angina.
Stress is very often cited as a major cause of Acid Reflux, although the jury is still out as to why. It is known, however, that stress can lower our immune systems, and that the stress hormone, cortisol, can affect digestion.
Dietary and Lifestyle Changes to Help Prevent Acid Reflux
Acid Reflux, or GERD, is one of the most preventable conditions around, and with a few changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can reduce your chances of developing it significantly.
Losing weight and/or maintaining a healthy weight will reduce the pressure on the stomach which can result in Acid Reflux.
Avoiding the foods which you know to be a trigger, - what causes Acid Reflux in one person may be fine in the next - so keeping a food diary will help to pinpoint the culprits. Fatty, spicy, and acidic foods can all cause reflux, as can chocolate and mint. Carbonated and caffeinated drinks are often also to blame. Learn which ones are a no-go for you, and avoid.
Talking of food and drink, alcohol can cause the muscles to relax, which may result in spasms of the oesophageal muscles.
Eating smaller meals can be a big help in reducing the chances of Acid Reflux, as larger, heavier meals place undue pressure on the stomach.
Don’t eat close to bedtime. When we lie down gravity is unable to help with the digestion process. Keeping upright for at least three hours after eating allows gravity to keep the acid where it should be – in the stomach.
Consider raising the head of your bed 6-8 inches higher. This has the same effect as the above point, encouraging acid to stay in the stomach. This will only be beneficial if the upper body is raised, and not just the head, so extra pillows won’t help.
Stop Smoking. It is thought that the nicotine in cigarettes can relax the oesophageal sphincter muscle, making leakage of stomach acids more likely.
Loosen up! Tight clothing, such as belts and waistbands, can restrict the stomach.
Ask your doctor to review your medication if any of them cause, or you think they might be causing, Acid Reflux. These can include antidepressants, angina tablets, blood pressure medications, antihistamines, sedatives, painkillers, potassium tablets, and iron supplements. However…never cease taking medication without consulting your doctor first.
Go gluten-free and see if your symptoms improve. It has been suggested in studies that gluten may be responsible for Acid Reflux, so it may be worth eliminating it from your diet for a while to see if it is affecting you.
Which Supplements Can Help?
Fortunately, there are supplements which can help to prevent Acid Reflux, and most (if not all) of them will help with other health problems too.
Ginger is one of the most potent natural remedies in the world. In the case of Acid Reflux, ginger is known to relieve gastrointestinal discomfort, and can also be used to stop stomach contractions. But the real interest, at least where Acid Reflux is concerned, is in its anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation of the oesophagus is known to be a key component of Acid Reflux and GERD, so by taking Ginger, and therefore reducing the inflammation, symptoms can be greatly reduced or eliminated.
Turmeric has become the darling of the natural health world in recent years, and not without good reason. Like ginger, turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory and as such its consumption can reduce inflammation present of the oesophagus. As GERD is thought to be caused, at least in part, by oesophageal inflammation, taking turmeric can ease or even prevent the symptoms associated with the condition.
Lemon Balm is wonderfully soothing on the stomach and can be used to help ease stomach cramps and spasms. However, its greatest property when it comes to dealing with the digestive system is that of its ability to inhibit the presence of Helicobacter Pylori , a bacteria which lives in the stomach and is thought to be responsible, at least in part, for GERD. Taken as a tea three times a day, Lemon Balm can work wonders on Acid Reflux.
Liquorice – when you think of liquorice it immediately conjures up images of Bertie Bassett in most people. But liquorice is actually a plant, and it is the root of this plant which is used for medicinal purposes. Research suggests that Liquorice increases the secretion of mucus in the stomach. The mucus is the body’s own natural defence against stomach acid, so by taking liquorice, the body is stimulated into protecting itself.
Vitamins play a vital role in our wellbeing, but when it comes to fighting Acid Reflux, there are three which stand out. Vitamins A, C and E are all powerful antioxidants which fight the free radicals which can cause cellular damage, illness and infection in the body. This damage is thought to make symptoms of Acid Reflux and GERD worse. Taking a supplement containing this trio of vitamins can help to protect you from the condition.
Probiotics are also known as ‘good bacteria’, and they live naturally in the body. The theory is that when there is an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria, illness can occur. One of the possible causes of Acid Reflux is that of too much bad bacteria causing food to ferment in the stomach. This then causes gas to build up, which places excessive pressure on the oesophageal sphincter, allowing acid to flow back into the oesophagus. Probiotics, such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus, can be found in foods such as live yoghurt, fermented soft cheeses, and sourdough bread, although these foods are not to everyone’s taste, in which case supplements can deliver the required dosage.
Magnesium deficiency is believed to be at the root of many cases of Acid Reflux, as magnesium helps the oesophageal sphincter to relax, which in turn allows food to pass into the stomach. Magnesium is also known for its ability to neutralise stomach acid and is one of the main ingredients in antacid medication. Taking a magnesium supplement can ensure that levels are topped up.
Papain is a digestive enzyme which is derived from papaya and is highly effective in treating indigestion, which is a major cause of heartburn. Indigestion keeps food in the stomach for longer which then increases the amount of stomach acid produced. Papain supplements work by reducing the time that food is kept in the stomach, thus speeding up digestion and reducing the risk of indigestion and the subsequent heartburn, or reflux.
Bromelain is also derived from fruit, this time from pineapple. It is something of a paradox, as pineapple is acidic – however, as it is digested it has an alkalising effect, neutralising the hydrochloric acid in the stomach. It also contains anti-inflammatory properties which can soothe inflammation of the oesophagus.
Acid Reflux can be extremely painful, but it can be managed successfully by making some dietary and lifestyle changes, and taking supplements to optimise digestive health.