“Hey you! Feel that burning in your chest that’s keeping you from sleep? That’s me, trying to ruin your esophagus.” Stop ignoring those whispers—the pain that hits after you eat or the feeling of nausea that creeps up every few days. It has a name: gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, and there’s something it’s not telling you … it’s treatable. November 19-25, 2017 is GERD Awareness Week. You can participate in the awareness by talking back in the form of taking action against your symptoms and spreading the word.
How It Happens
Maybe you already suspect you suffer from GERD, but aren’t sure. It may help to understand more about what’s happening in your body. At the bottom of your esophagus, at the entrance to your stomach, is a little ring of muscle called a sphincter. This muscle is responsible for opening and closing to allow food into the stomach and keep it there. When reflux occurs, the sphincter isn’t doing its job because it is relaxing when it shouldn’t or because it has become weakened. The more reflux happens, the weaker the sphincter becomes. For GERD patients reflux is happening often, as in one to two times a week, and the sphincter weakening can pose big problems as acid flows in and out of the esophagus. This perpetuates the sphincter’s ineffectiveness and causes damage to the esophageal lining, which can lead to serious issues like buildup of scar tissue, difficulty swallowing, open sores, and increased risk of esophageal cancer.
GERD can happen for a number of reasons, but one thing that puts you at higher risk is pressure on the abdomen due to tight clothing, being overweight, or pregnancy. Smoking has also been linked to increased reflux because it also wears away the esophageal sphincter. Regularly eating quickly or overeating can also aggravate symptoms. Some medications, like high blood pressure medicine, allergy medicine, painkillers, and antidepressants can cause GERD symptoms as well.
What to Look For
The serious effects of GERD on the esophagus warrant attention to the problem, and most symptoms can be treated by changes in diet and lifestyle. The difficult thing about GERD is that it can be very individual when it comes to how people experience it. Each person has their own triggers and set of symptoms, but some are common and fairly universal. Things like frequent and painful heartburn, worsening symptoms while lying down, and food regurgitation are pretty typical for GERD patients. However, foods are a big trigger, and some foods may cause reflux in one person and not another. The best way to understand your own illness and be able to make necessary adjustments to your lifestyle and diet is to keep a log for at least a week. Write down everything you eat and drink and the activities you participate in each day. Make a note of when you experience symptoms, from mild discomfort to significant pain, and what the symptom was—disrupted sleep, nausea or vomiting, scratchy throat, cough, etc. Include the time of day as well since we digest foods differently throughout the day and during different activities. At the end of the week, evaluate the data and try to identify patterns in your symptoms. It might be helpful to continue the log for an additional two to three weeks as you experiment with eliminating certain things to see if it makes a difference. This may seem like a somewhat tedious task, but look at it this way—at the end of one month, you will have a much better understanding of your illness and possibly even eliminated much of its effects.
Understanding your own GERD and making adjustments to your life accordingly is the best first step. The next piece is spreading your newfound knowledge to others. Studies have shown that GERD is hereditary, so if you suffer from it, the chances are good that your family members do as well. Ask them questions about their symptoms and share your experience. Do a log together to keep each other accountable, and make a tedious task more enjoyable.
Many patients take reflux medications such as PPIs (proton pump inhibitors) to suppress acid production and help relieve their heartburn symptoms. However, they are still unable to eat the foods they want or have to sleep sitting up to reduce nighttime reflux. Also, the PPI drugs available over-the-counter are powerful and should only be used long term under the supervision of a physician.
Whatever level of action you decide to take, a smart thing to do is have a discussion with your doctor about your situation. Dr. Sameer Islam can help you determine if what you are feeling is, in fact, GERD and what to do about it. Make an appointment today.