Heartburn, GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease), indigestion, reflux … these are some of the names for the condition which causes that distinctly unpleasant burning sensation in your chest. When severe, GERD can be accompanied by nausea, chest pain, vomiting, “repeating” of food and difficulty swallowing. It can disrupt sleep and make your life miserable.
Heartburn occurs when the contents of the upper digestive tract back up through the little “door” between the esophagus and the stomach (the lower esophageal sphincter). This backward flow is a motility, or movement, problem called reflux.
Occasional heartburn can be readily treated with antacids. When GERD becomes chronic, take medication to control the symptoms, but you should also address the cause of the problem. Although television commercials tend to treat indigestion with a humorous approach, it can damage the esophagus if it continues for a prolonged period. Plus, no medicine is free of side effects, and some of the newer heartburn medications can have serious long-term side effects and interactions.
Here are some tips and techniques for preventing and controlling this pesky condition.
1. Quit smoking – Tobacco irritates the digestive tract and contributes to heartburn.
2. Avoid alcohol – It can cause and exacerbate GERD.
3. Check your medicine cabinet – Do you take other drugs, particularly pain-killers, that may contribute to heartburn?
4. Lose weight – Losing even a few pounds can alleviate GERD.
5. Examine your diet – Avoid foods that seem to trigger heartburn. Common offenders are caffeine, chocolate, high-acid foods (such as citrus and tomato juices) and mint-flavored foods, such as peppermint tea. Dairy foods can be triggers in people who are lactose-intolerant. Avoid fatty foods, especially animal fat. Also, it is a myth that carbonated drinks relieve heartburn. Just the opposite is true.
6. Change your eating habits – Eat small, frequent meals rather than three large ones. Don’t eat late at night, and don’t lie down right after eating.
7. Prop yourself up – Elevate the upper portion of your body when you sleep. An extra pillow under your head won’t do it. Your chest and shoulders need to be elevated, too.
8. Exercise – A regular aerobic exercise program, even a brisk daily walk, helps many people with GERD. It reduces stress and helps you lose weight. However, don’t exercise right after a meal.
9. Reduce stress – Stress doesn’t cause GERD, but it can make it worse. Stress-reduction may also help you lose weight.