Thanksgiving is an amazing day where Americans stuff themselves with copious amounts of holiday food while spending quality time with friends and family. Unfortunately, while some emerge from their food comas unscathed, other millions of Americans will suffer in silence due to a digestive disease called GERD. As Thanksgiving follows just after GERD Awareness Week (November 17-23) this year, it is important to understand this disease and how to keep it from impacting and even ruining your holiday season.
What is GERD and What Does it Stand For?
GERD, or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, is a very painful disease that impacts 1 in 5 people in the United States. It occurs when stomach acid and/or other non-acidic stomach contents flow back up and into the esophagus on a regular basis, usually more than two times per week. The sphincter (the circular muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that allows food and drink to enter into the stomach) is the primary culprit here, as the weakening of it or the irregular relaxing of the muscle allows the contents to leak backward and into the esophagus. Unfortunately, this stomach acid acts as its name suggests, eating away at the tissue in the esophagus and ultimately leading to severe chest pain, throat ulcers, scar tissue accumulation, or in severe and more rare cases cancer. The chest pains one feels can be attributed to a sibling ailment of GERD commonly known as Heartburn. Heartburn is a burning feeling in the middle of the chest that usually occurs after eating as the stomach acid begins its way back up. It impacts more than 60 million people per month. There are other effects of Heartburn and GERD as well. These can include nausea, gagging, regurgitation, halitosis, and a bitter acidic taste in the mouth.
What are the Causes of GERD?
There are several different potential causes of GERD. When weight is added around the abdomen, this can cause an increase in the pressure on the stomach. This is common in women who are pregnant as well as people who struggle with obesity. This pressure then forces some of the stomach acid and non-acidic contents back and up into the esophagus. The most common triggers of GERD are due to the foods and drinks one consumes. These include, but are not limited to:
- Peppermints or peppermint flavored drinks and foods
- Foods high in citric acid
- Spicy foods
- Foods and drinks high in caffeine
Many people really feel the effects of GERD when they are lying down after they have eaten, especially if it was a large meal. GERD can wreak havoc on your sleep, as many suffering with this have to sleep in an elevated position. When lying down, it is easier for the stomach acid to leak back through the relaxed or weakened sphincter and into the esophagus. If it travels far enough back up the esophagus, an individual can experience the sensation of gagging or like one is about to vomit as they are rudely and immediately awakened from their sleep.
How is GERD Treated?
There are treatments and other ways that one can mitigate or stop the suffering caused by GERD. One of the most difficult, but important places to start involves lifestyle changes. These have proven to be instrumental in many cases. Staying upright after eating allows the food to settle in the stomach and can keep the acids from running back up. Eating and then going right to sleep can cause massive amounts of discomfort here as well, so one would be wise to add some space between your last meal and going to bed. Sleeping at a slight or more drastic incline has proven to help some keep GERD at bay. As obesity can severely impact GERD, moderate exercising and diet have been a key for some. Additionally, over the counter medications can be taken. These medications include proton pump inhibitors, H2 receptor blockers, and antacids. Any long term use of these medications should include monitoring by a doctor. There are other stronger medications your doctor may prescribe to counteract stomach acid or help the stomach empty faster. If diet changes and medicines don’t prove effective, your doctor may recommend further testing which could lead to surgery.
If you are struggling with or have concerns regarding heartburn or GERD, please schedule a visit with us so we can help you find the relief you deserve.