You’re just getting home from dinner when it hits — that burning sensation in your chest that you always feel after eating spicy Thai noodles. You’re uncomfortable. You can’t sleep. And you can’t figure out how to make it go away.
You’re feeling heartburn, a symptom of acid reflux. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, 15 million Americans experience heartburn every single day. If you experience acid reflux more than two times a week, though, you may have the long-term, persistent gastroesophageal reflux disease, a.k.a. GERD.
We know the word “disease” sounds scary, so you’re probably wondering: Is acid reflux bad for you?
Our answer: Not necessarily. Once you understand acid reflux and GERD and the impact it can have on your health, you can better figure out how to treat your symptoms and keep yourself healthy.
Acid reflux is a condition wherein acid in your stomach escapes upward, back into the esophagus. It looks something like this:
Unlike your stomach, the esophagus is not designed to handle acid. So when acid makes contact with the soft muscle tissue of the esophagus, you might experience the common symptoms of acid reflux, namely chest pain, or a burning sensation behind your breastplate. That’s called heartburn, even though it has nothing to do with your heart (confusing, we know). Other symptoms include:
So, what causes acid reflux? Well, a lot of times, it’s what you eat. It’s commonly known that spicy, fried, salty, or fatty foods, like beer and wings are linked to heartburn. But there are many other triggering foods that are often overlooked, like seafood, cheese, alcohol, coffee, and ice cream. Typically, you’ll feel symptoms of acid reflux 2-3 hours after eating these or other trigger foods. And it’s more common to experience acid reflux at night, when acid production peaks for the day.
If you’re experiencing these symptoms every once in a while, following a heavy meal — that’s pretty normal. But if you have chronic heartburn, more than twice a week, it’s a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. And this means you’re at risk for other digestive diseases.
Your stomach contents are acidic, so if you have acid reflux on a regular basis, there’s potential for complications. You’ll want to keep an eye on your conditions and stay in touch with your doctor to understand your risk factors and how to keep your reflux in check.
With acid reflux, sometimes acid can make its way into the mouth, which means people with GERD are at risk for tooth decay — the acid can eat away at the lingual (tongue-touching) parts of your teeth. Then there's dry mouth, a symptom that enables dental bacteria to thrive, which increases your risk for cavities or decay. So be sure to visit your dentist regularly to keep on eye on your oral health.
Because acid reflux is more common at night, it can interfere with sleep, which can be uncomfortable and have dramatic effects on your well-being. The NIH reports a 50% comorbidity rate, meaning that half the people they studied with sleep problems also experience acid reflux.
Why? Partly because laying down means the stomach acid has less gravity to fight to get into the esophagus, so it’s easier for acid to find its way there. On top of that, when you're horizontal in bed, there's a higher chance that the acid might stay there longer, increasing your risk for esophageal complications.
To relieve the discomfort, some people have found that it’s more comfortable to sleep on their left side, and/or at an incline (pro tip: put risers under the head of your bed to prop it up), so the stomach acid is less likely to make its way back up into the esophagus. Though it’s not quite clear why, it seems sleeping on one’s right side relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, making reflux more likely, so patients prefer sleeping on their left side.
Some studies also have shown a correlation between acid reflux and sleep apnea. So in short, if you’re experiencing sleep problems that might be related to heartburn, talk to your doctor.
Studies have also shown significant overlap between asthma and acid reflux — 75% of asthma patients also have GERD. While the relationship isn’t totally clear, it’s been observed that GERD makes asthma symptoms worse, and that asthma makes GERD symptoms worse — especially at night. It may be that acid reflux triggers a nerve that narrows one’s airways, or that damage to one’s esophagus makes breathing difficult.
Either way, if you're experiencing asthma and acid reflux, it’s recommended that you eat smaller meals, stay fit, and sleep at an incline to mitigate symptoms and discomfort. We also recommend that you see a doctor to understand how to treat these conditions together.
While acid reflux is more of a discomfort than a serious health risk, you do need to be vigilant about what’s going on in your digestive tract, especially if you experience frequent acid reflux. According to the NIH, 5% of people with symptoms of GERD may develop Barrett's esophagus, a risk factor for developing esophageal cancer wherein the esophageal cells transform into cells akin to those in the intestines. And in general, GERD patients are more at risk for esophageal cancer, so it’s important to see your doctor regularly.
If you experience acid reflux, there are other risk factors you should know about. Smoking has been linked to dysfunction in the lower esophageal sphincter, which means the acid is more likely to move into the esophagus, so it's a good idea to quit smoking (for this and other reasons) to reduce your risk of reflux and other health problems.
Researchers have also uncovered a correlation between high blood pressure and GERD. Though we don't understand whether the relationship is correlated or causal, studies show that taking antacids can help maintain normal blood pressure.
With acid reflux, there's also risk for hiatal hernia, which happens when the upper part of the stomach moves up into the chest through the esophageal opening — it's not known whether this is a cause or effect of acid reflux.
There are several ways to treat symptoms and mitigate the effects of acid reflux, including over-the-counter medications (OTC) and prescription drugs.
You can also make lifestyle changes, such as avoiding large meals, reducing your intake of fatty and spicy foods, quitting smoking, and wearing loose-fitting clothes (pressure on your stomach increases the risk of acid reflux).
We know this is a lot of information. Now that you know the symptoms and risk factors of acid reflux, we recommend speaking with a licensed physician, who can diagnose GERD, offer treatment, explain possible side effects, and inform you of other conditions you might be at risk for.
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