How to stop acid reflux
We’ve all been there. A small family gathering, complete with your favorite snacks – nachos, pizza, burgers, beer. And a few hours afterward, you feel that familiar burning sensation creeping back into your esophagus. It’s heartburn – the annoying, uncomfortable and unwelcomed visitor coming to ruin yet day.
Forty percent of Americans experience heartburn – a burning sensation in the chest caused by the regurgitation of acid into the esophagus – at least once a month. However, for people suffering from a condition called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), heartburn and acid reflux are a daily occurrence.
“GERD is a chronic condition that develops when the reflux of gastric content causes troublesome symptoms or complications,” says Gokul Balasubramanian, MD, a gastroenterologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“Risk factors for developing GERD include obesity, hiatal hernias and pregnancy – but others can experience it as well.”
While GERD is a fairly common health disorder – often affecting 8 to 33 percent of adults according to Dr. Balasubramanian – it can be more than just an occasional nuisance. If left untreated, GERD can lead to esophageal narrowing or even cancer.
But there are ways to mitigate the risks. Here’s four tips for controlling heartburn / GERD:
1. Change your diet
Consuming alcohol and caffeinated drinks and smoking tobacco can aggravate the symptoms of acid reflux. The effect of those items is a relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscle connecting the stomach and esophagus, allowing more acid to back up into the chest.
“Most often changes in dietary habits like avoiding late night meals or large fatty meals, and avoiding other food triggers like soda, caffeinated drinks and alcoholic drinks could substantially reduce your symptoms,” he says.
Incorporating green leafy vegetables, ginger, lean meats, egg whites, oatmeal, noncitrus fruits and healthy fats like avocados and nuts into your diet can also alleviate acid reflux symptoms. These foods have anti-inflammatory properties and help to absorb excess acid in the stomach.
In addition, Dr. Balasubramanian says to avoid taking certain medications like ibuprofen and aspirin, which can irritate the esophageal and stomach lining. Milder pain killers like Tylenol can be taken instead.
2. Find the right heartburn medication
There are quite a few acid reflux medications to control symptoms on the market today, such as omeprazole (Prilosec). They work by shutting down the pumps in the stomach that produce excess stomach acid. All can bring relief to those suffering from GERD, but with long-term use, some, especially omeprazole, may cause dangerous side effects like kidney damage.
“Over the last three years, studies have shown an association between chronic kidney disease and long-term use of some heartburn medications,” Dr. Balasubramanian explains. “So far, we are not sure if this association was an incidental finding or direct result of the pills.”
However, heartburn pills like ranitidine and famotidine (Pepcid) have not been shown to have the same effect on the kidney when taken over a long period of time, Dr. Balasubramanian added. But these can be less effective pills for the treatment of acid reflux.
“It is important to discuss the risks and benefits of taking a heartburn pill, especially over a long period of time,” he says.
There are also over the counter medications like calcium carbonate (Tums) that can help alleviate the symptoms of acid reflux, but cannot prevent GERD.
3. Change your sleep habits
According to Dr. Balasubramanian, one of the quickest ways to ease heartburn pain is to adjust your sleeping position by raising the head of the bed using blocks, bricks or books.
“Just elevating your head can be extremely useful in those who have frequent nighttime reflux symptoms,” he says.
This is because being propped up helps the acid to remain in the stomach, rather than escaping into the esophagus.
In addition, Dr. Balasubramanian advises those with GERD to wait at least three hours after dinner to sleep, which gives enough time for the stomach to fully digest a large meal.
4. Can surgery fix GERD?
If medication or diet changes are ineffective, surgery may be the best course of treatment remaining. First, doctors perform two tests to help guide which procedure will be most beneficial.
In esophageal pH testing and esophageal manometry testing, the doctor measures the amount of acid in your throat and the muscle coordination of your esophagus when you swallow.
Based on your results, you may need a surgery, like fundoplication, to tighten and reinforce the LES.
Health Tip: Avoid chewing peppermint gum to help heartburn symptoms. Peppermint chewing gum can worsen acid reflux since it relaxes the esophagus muscles.
Can GERD cause cancer?
According to Dr. Balasubramanian, the most serious risk involved with GERD is esophageal cancer, especially if chronic heartburn and acid reflux go untreated.
“Five to 15 percent of those who have GERD develop what is called as Barrett’s esophagus. This is a premalignant condition for the development of esophageal cancer,” he explains. “The risk factors for developing this condition include being an older individual, being obese, having GERD for a long duration or being a long-term smoker.”
He adds those individuals should have an upper endoscopy for evaluation of Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer.
The best way to prevent cancer from developing is to maintain a healthy diet and take your GERD medication consistently.
Difference between heartburn and heart attack pain
The symptoms of heartburn and a heart attack are often similar, with chest pain being the most common sign of both. However, there are subtle differences that can help you determine whether your chest pain is simply acid-induced or something much more serious.
- Heartburn: usually occurs after meals or lying down
- Heart attack: usually follows exercise or other exertion
But because in the moment it can be hard to distinguish between the two, Dr. Balasubramanian says it is better to be safe than sorry, and to call 9-11 if you are concerned.