Most of us will suffer from heartburn at some point. That burning sensation in your chest, sour taste in your mouth, or persistent dry cough lets you know that acid from the stomach is leaking back, or refluxing, into your esophagus. (It occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter cannot close properly.) Often the hit comes after a meal that's too fatty or too large, or when you've eaten a late dinner and gone to bed soon afterward.
But for 1 of 3 people, heartburn is a symptom of a chronic problem known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. This condition can damage the esophagus and, in some cases, eventually lead to throat cancer or esophageal cancer (the fastest-growing type of cancer in the United States). GERD can affect people of all ages, but our likelihood of contracting it tends to increase as we age.
The total number of sufferers is rising, particularly in North America and East Asia, according to a global 2013 study published in the journal Gut. Any fiftysomething carrying extra pounds, especially around the waist, or eating a diet too high in fat, should consider measures to help ward off the condition.
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If you're already taking over-the-counter acid blockers or other medication to treat heartburn more than twice a week, it's time to see your doctor because such a high frequency of reflux means you very likely already have GERD. But if you experience only occasional heartburn, some basic diet and lifestyle changes can help prevent it from turning into a more serious concern.
Anti-Reflux Lifestyle Tips
The foods that trigger acid reflux can vary from person to person, but certain items tend to be common culprits. These include fatty foods; fried foods; black pepper; citrus juices; soft drinks, coffee and other caffeinated drinks; peppermint; tomatoes and tomato sauce; alcohol; and, sorry, chocolate. Sometimes just limiting these trigger foods is enough to prevent reflux, but if heartburn persists you may want to consider employing new strategies that can limit reflux and enable you to enjoy your trigger foods in moderation. These are four of the most reliable approaches:
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- Lose weight. Excess pounds can put pressure on the abdomen and push your stomach up, letting acid reflux into your esophagus. This can be more of a problem if your body type tends to put the extra weight around your belly.
- Don't overeat at meals. Consider shifting to five or six smaller meals or snacks per day.
- Keep upright for at least three hours after eating. Reclining too soon after meals can allow acid to flow back into your esophagus, particularly if the sphincter muscle between your esophagus and stomach is weak.
- Quit smoking. Cigarettes can interfere with the sphincter's ability to function properly.
Exploring New Strategies
As people who suffer from acid reflux often learn, diet and lifestyle strategies don't always relieve 100 percent of symptoms. Medications aren't a perfect remedy either. Researchers continue to explore alternative diet, lifestyle and surgical solutions. These three approaches have recently shown promise in preliminary tests:
Low-acid diets Scientists are examining how the acid levels of a variety of foods impact multiple gastrointestinal conditions, including reflux. In one recent encouraging test, 19 of 20 acid-reflux sufferers whose symptoms had not responded to medication did respond to a low-acid diet. Such a diet avoids common reflux triggers and focuses on foods with a pH level above 5 (meaning they are less acidic), such as melons, bananas, broccoli, oatmeal, whole grains, fish and skinless chicken or turkey. With an emphasis on vegetables and whole grains and a limit on fatty foods and meats, the diet is in line with other common guidance for healthy eating, but with an added vigilance against reflux triggers.
Yoga Since anxiety and stress can worsen heartburn, the theory here is that tension-reducing alternative therapies like massage, guided imagery or hypnosis might help. According to a study recently published in the International Journal of Yoga, when high doses of medication weren't helping one 62-year-old man suffering from persistent heartburn, his doctors suggested daily yoga practice. After six months of yoga (combined with his medications), the subject showed significant improvement. Researchers speculate that yoga may exert an impact on the autonomic nervous system, which controls contractions in the digestive tract.
Magnetic beads Mayo Clinic researchers have found success treating acid reflux with a ring-like device of magnetic beads placed around the valve between the stomach and the esophagus. The device helps the valve stay closed when a person isn't eating or drinking. "This is the first new, safe and effective treatment for reflux disease in 20 years," Dr. C. Daniel Smith, chair of the surgery department at Mayo Clinic in Florida, said in a statement. "The device is simple, elegant and functional, and it provides an opportunity to help a very large number of patients." Of the 100 volunteers in an ongoing five-year study, 92 have reported that the device has eased reflux symptoms and 87 have been able to stop taking acid-suppressing medication.