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What to Know if You Just Got Diagnosed With GERD

Image of What to Know if You Just Got Diagnosed With GERD
Image of What to Know if You Just Got Diagnosed With GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux is a big name for what really amounts to acid reflux. It’s something many people experience from time to time, and for some, it’s relatively minor.

But if you’re having acid reflux symptoms several times per week, you may have something more serious: gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. This is a relatively common condition, so if you fall into this category, you’re not alone.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to treat the condition. What are the symptoms and treatment of GERD? Here’s everything you should know.

What Exactly is GERD? (And What Isn’t It?)

In a nutshell, GERD is persistent gastroesophageal reflux. Generally speaking, it’s acid reflux that affects you more than two times per week. If your symptoms are severe, you could also be diagnosed with GERD even if the acid reflux occurs just once a week.

This digestive condition affects the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscle between the esophagus and stomach. While the LES normally opens up, enabling food to enter your stomach, and closes to prevent backwash into your esophagus, when you have GERD, the LES doesn’t work like it should and allows food and liquid back into the esophagus. Your stomach acid can irritate the lining of the esophagus.

There are a number of GERD symptoms that indicate that you have the condition, such as heartburn—especially when it occurs after you eat—which essentially feels like a burning sensation in your chest and can leave an unpleasant taste in your mouth. This pain and discomfort can last for several hours.

Other GERD symptoms include:

Why does GERD Occur?

GERD is not uncommon—an estimated 20% of people in the United States have the condition. An even greater number—approximately 60 million Americans—has heartburn or acid reflux at least occasionally.

While anyone can have GERD, there are some conditions and risk factors that make it more likely that you’ll develop it. People who are overweight or obese fall into this category, as do pregnant women. A hiatal hernia, a condition in which the top part of your stomach bulges into the chest area, can also put people at a higher risk for GERD.

Some connective tissue diseases, including scleroderma and lupus, can increase the likelihood of having GERD.

Taking certain medications, including aspirin, and eating certain foods, such as those that are high in fat, can introduce or exacerbate symptoms as well. Smoking is another trigger.

What happens if you don’t treat it?

While curing GERD entirely isn’t possible (yet!), it’s usually highly treatable with diet and lifestyle modifications, as well as medication in more serious cases. In fact, most people can manage the condition without it feeling burdensome.

However, if left untreated, there can be complications. That’s why it’s important to seek out medical treatment if you suspect you have GERD. These longer-term complications are far less likely to occur with effective treatment. That way, you can avoid dealing with problems like persistent pain when swallowing and a more alarming—but avoidable (if you take the right steps)—condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which could increase your risk of esophageal cancer.

How do you treat GERD?

The good news is that in the vast majority of cases, GERD can be treated with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Although uncomfortable and at times painful, GERD and acid reflux are very unlikely to wreak havoc on your life when you make these adjustments.

Lifestyle Changes

Being overweight or obese and smoking are two common factors leading to GERD, but there are other risk factors, too,

Stress can also exacerbate acid reflux symptoms. While it’s easier said than done, reducing stress in your life can have an amazing impact on your health—including your GERD.

Even small lifestyle changes, such as wearing looser clothing and propping your head up when resting, can moderate your side effects.

Diet Changes

Diet changes are a key way to help resolve your GERD. To start, avoid eating large meals and instead eat more frequent, smaller meals throughout the day. Chew slowly to aid digestion. But make sure you stop eating about 2-3 hours before you go to sleep. There are also foods and drinks that will make your symptoms worse.

So, what foods should you avoid for GERD? The specific triggers vary from person to person, but there are some common refrains. Those that are high in fat are one big culprit: butter, oil, cheese, and so on. Caffeine and alcohol are also usually problematic, along with acidic foods like citrus fruits and tomatoes. Try avoiding spicy foods and peppermint, too.

OTC Medications

Diet modifications not doing the trick? There are a number of over-the-counter medications for GERD treatment and acid reflux treatment.

Examples include:

Natural Supplements

Some natural supplements and home remedies can also give you some relief from your GERD symptoms. Papayas, for example, contain the papain enzyme, which aids digestion. If you don’t want to actually eat a papaya, you can find supplements with the papain enzyme.

There’s also some evidence that ginger root can alleviate acid reflux and heartburn, reducing the irritation in your esophagus. There are also plenty of supplements you can take, such as probiotics, psyllium fiber powder, and magnesium.

“Psyllium fiber powder can help absorb excess stomach acid,” says gastroenterologist and Evens Medical Director Dr. Heather Gerst. “It can also help treat constipation by softening stool, or relieve diarrhea by absorbing excess fluid in the colon.”

Medical Interventions

GERD testing is the first step if you’re experiencing more severe symptoms. Your doctor may perform an endoscopy, upper GI X-ray, or pH testing.

Your doctor can offer prescription forms of several of the above medications like antacids or proton pump inhibitors.

GERD is no walk in the park, but with a few lifestyle and dietary changes, along with finding the treatment that works for you, you can often resolve your symptoms and find lasting relief.

If these changes don’t remedy GERD, you’re experiencing severe symptoms, or you’re taking OTC medications several times a week, talk to a doctor about next steps (or work with an Evens doctor to develop a personalized plan). They can help with a diagnosis and determining the best next steps for you.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Photo by Allie Lehman via Death to Stock