Having a little heartburn after certain meals is normal. But up to one-third of Americans will be affected by a more serious chronic digestive disorder called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD, at some point in their lives. “Multiple factors contribute to GERD, including diet, behavior and anatomy. If left unchecked, it can lead to serious diseases like esophageal cancer,” says Dr. Lawrence A. Attia, a Gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Medical Center and St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals.
What is GERD?
The esophagus is a muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. There is a valve at the bottom of the esophagus that serves as a gateway into the stomach. When swallowing, that valve is supposed to relax to allow food or liquid into the stomach and then close to prevent stomach contents from traveling back up the esophagus. GERD gets its name from what happens when stomach acid flows backward, or refluxes. GERD most often causes:
- Heartburn or pain in the stomach or esophagus
- Difficulty or painful swallowing
- Hoarseness or sore throat
“People who have these symptoms more than once or twice a week should seek help from their doctor or a gastroenterology specialist like me,” says Dr. Attia. Secondary symptoms can include dental problems or sinus issues. Anyone who experiences severe pain from swallowing, choking, has chest pain, blood in their vomit or stool, or unexpected weight loss should see their doctor right away, he adds.
Treatment takes commitment
GERD is treatable, but since food, stress and other factors play a role, patients have to be committed to change. “Ideally, GERD can be treated and managed with dietary adjustments, behavior modifications and possibly, medications,” Dr. Attia says. “Lifestyle changes make a very big difference.”
Choose foods that prevent GERD symptoms
Some foods can weaken the valve at the end of the esophagus. Acidic, fried, fatty and spicy foods produce acid that can enter the esophagus, cause a burning feeling, and even corrode the digestive tract. People with GERD should avoid chocolate, tomatoes, onions and citrus fruits and caffeinated or alcoholic drinks. The severity and frequency of heartburn and reflux can be managed with a diet that includes low-acid and reflux-fighting foods like oatmeal, chicken, whole grains, bananas, seafood, almonds, ginger, green vegetables and parsley. For healthy recipe ideas, visit our recipe section.
Make lifestyle changes to improve GERD symptoms
New Yorkers have a reputation for working long hours then eating a late dinner, but Dr. Attia recommends a window of at least two hours between eating dinner and going to bed. “If you eat a meal and then lay down right away, stomach acid is more likely to splash back up the esophagus during the beginning of the digestion process.
If you suffer nighttime heartburn, it can help to elevate the head of the bed. Choosing to sleep on your left side can improve digestion. Cigarette smoking can also contribute to reflux, Dr. Attia says. People who are overweight, obese or pregnant may experience increased pressure on their stomach. “Losing weight can help GERD patients feel more comfortable,” Dr. Attia says.
Use medication to treat GERD
People whose symptoms don’t respond to lifestyle changes may need medication to help manage their reflux condition. Available treatments are over-the-counter and prescription antacids, acid-reducers and acid-production blockers. “The goal of treatment is to neutralize the acid in the stomach. That way, even if the valve is letting reflux occur, the acid that comes up isn’t so damaging to the lining of the esophagus,” Dr. Attia says.
To learn more about GERD or to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist, call 1-855-411-LWNY (5969) or visit MountSinaiHealth.org.