Acid Reflux, Heartburn, and GERD: Symptoms, Causes and Remedies
Burping, disrupted sleep, abdominal pain, nausea, even vomiting and choking … if you’ve experienced these symptoms, you’re likely suffering from chronic acid reflux, also commonly known at GERD.
You’re not alone. Roughly 25%-30% of Americans experience GERD-related heartburn multiple times a week.1. One Norweigen study surmises that acid reflux is 50% more common than 10 years ago.2I personally suffered bouts of GERD and acid reflux during and even after my endurance training years, and my symptoms persisted until I finally gave up grains once and for all.
More debilitating than average, occasional heartburn, GERD symptoms chip away at your daily quality of life, and if left unattended, can even eventually lead to esophageal cancer 3. GERD and acid reflux are becoming more prevalent 4, and supposed ‘miracle’ pills are more pervasive than ever: from TUMS and Pepcid to prescription medications, the market is flooded with treatment options. How did a condition usually associated with late-stage pregnancy and over indulgence become an epidemic?
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What is GERD, or Acid Reflux? Are They the Same Thing?
Reflux, more commonly known as ‘heartburn,’ occurs when stomach acid moves backwards into the esophagus, sometimes as a result of the esophageal sphincter (the muscle that connects the stomach and esophagus) malfunctioning. 5 GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a recurring, severe form of acid reflux. 6
Acid Reflux and GERD Symptoms
People who suffer from acid reflux and GERD tend to experience some combination of these symptoms regularly:
- Chest pain or burning sensation in your chest
- Regurgitation or even vomiting
- Stomach pain/discomfort
- Bad breath
- Tooth decay
- Respiratory problems7
What Causes Heartburn and Acid Reflux?
There are many contributing factors to heartburn and acid reflux, and depending on who you talk to, the causes will vary. Some blame foods that cause acid reflux, citing tomatoes, garlic, mint, chocolate, vinegar, and alcohol as “food triggers.”8
According to some doctors, the physiological causes are diverse: sliding hiatus hernia, low lower esophageal sphincter pressure, a relaxation of the lower sphincter, the acid pocket, obesity, among others.9 Other factors, like obesity, genetics, pregnancy, and even stress can allegedly also generate the symptoms of acid reflux and GERD.10
There is also a correlation between NSAID (think: aspirin and ibuprofen) and GERD – which might account for the many athletes and trainers who I know who rely on pain relief from medication, and then struggle with acid reflux 11.
Some even notice the connection between higher levels of estrogen and GERD symptoms, perhaps why it was long associated with pregnant women 12 With so many factors contributing to the causes of GERD, it’s easier to understand why so many suffer. However, the physical response to GERD and the treatment don’t quite connect. While the problem is rising acid, most medications treat excess acid, which doesn’t address the weakened esophageal sphincter, and might make one wonder, are these ‘wonder medications’ just treating the symptoms, and not the actual problem?
How to Stop Heartburn: the Most Common Acid Reflux Treatments
So what helps heartburn and acid reflux? Is there such a thing as acid reflux relief? Over the counter antacids like TUMS and Pepcid are often a short term solution, and it’s possible you’ve even heard about the recall of major drug, Zantac, and its link increasing risk of cancers.13 The most commonly prescribed acid reflux medication is a proton pump inhibitor, or a PPI.14
Most conventional doctors will treat GERD or acid reflux by prescribing one of the PPIs and recommending lifestyle changes (such as avoiding “food triggers”). Consistent symptoms usually result in further evaluations of the esophagus through endoscopies.
15 However, if you talk to folks who’ve been struggling with GERD and acid reflux for a while, you’ll learn PPIs have a bad reputation. Long term use is linked to higher risk of infections 16 and weaker bone integrity. Some even believe PPIs can cause kidney diseases, heart attacks, and dementia.17
Because PPIs reduce stomach acid, long term usage or incorrect dosage might cause a swing in the other direction – too little stomach acid, which can actually make symptoms worse. 18
Are there other remedies besides medication?
If chronic discomfort or long term side effects of PPIs don’t entice you, there are other options. Since doctors and patients are becoming more aware of the various side effects of antacids and proton pump inhibitors, there’s been an increased interest in non-medical therapies and remedies.19
For generations, doctors, healers, and patients have searched for natural remedies for acid reflux. For example, in ancient Persian culture, it was believed herbs might act as an acid reflux remedy – and given the enduring prevalence of this theory, there might be some evidence that it’s effective. 20 Some people use teas and natural products meant to combat morning sickness because they contain similar herbs.
Home remedies for reflux
People have used the following remedies for GERD and reflux, with varying results:
- Apple cider vinegar, diluted in water, before meals
- Digestive bitters before meals
- Small amounts of baking soda mixed with water (Careful, this could make low stomach acid even lower.)
- Betaine HCl, to increase stomach acid (Another one to be careful with. This only works if your reflux symptoms are caused by low stomach acid. It can make matters worse if you have too much stomach acid.)
- Avoiding eating or snacking late in the evening
- Avoiding lying down after eating or snacking
- Stress management
- Probiotics, which may be part of a complete digestive system balancing regimen
Getting to the source of the problem is most effective, so work with your doctor to see what steps to take.
Acid reflux diet
The most common advice is be aware of what acid reflux and GERD foods to avoid. In general, the data on food and diet related to GERD and acid reflux symptoms can be sparse and conflicting, however, there is promising data that your diet can help protect against symptoms.21 In one study, researchers found that patients studied with GERD and acid reflux tended to have multiple food intolerances as well, suggesting that maybe acid reflux dietary modification could have a positive effect on symptoms.22
Could low-carb be the answer? One small study points to lowering carb intake as a means for relief. 23 Certainly there are folks who’ve found success, and you can read their stories right here 24. If the underlying problem is a malfunctioning esophageal sphincter, we have to look at healing the system, not the acid (which is an important part of our body’s processes). I recommend Dr. Norman Robillard’s book, “Heartburn Cured: the Low Carb Miracle,” where he suggests that our high-carb diets are to blame. Our bodies are unable to properly breakdown the carbohydrates, creating gas in the upper digestive system, triggering the reflux.
Action Steps for GERD and Acid Reflux
How do we begin to heal the system, and not just the symptoms? Here are some things you can experiment with and see how you feel:
- Repopulate your gut with probiotics and good bacteria
- Eat low-carb
- Try omega-3s as a step toward addressing inflammation
Have you overcome GERD or acid reflux? I’d love to hear how others have tackled this and what has worked for you.
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