Published September 25, 2013
Maybe it’s the middle of the night, you wake up coughing, choking. Or perhaps you are at work, you have a big, greasy meal for lunch, and all of a sudden you feel a burning, stabbing, incessant pain in your chest.
If these scenarios do sound familiar, you could be one of the 15 million Americans who suffer from heartburn and acid reflux daily.
Many people have felt the sensation of heartburn, but what exactly is acid reflux?
Acid reflux is the backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus – the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. This backward flow becomes possible when the sphincter muscle at the lower end of your esophagus is weak or relaxes at the wrong time. If the valve or sphincter is open, this allows stomach acid to back up into your esophagus. This reflux can, in turn, cause heartburn – the burning sensation in your chest - along with other symptoms.
When acid reflux and heart burn occurs at least twice a week, and the backwash of acid irritates the lining of your esophagus, doctors will classify this as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
Here are some common symptoms of acid reflux:
Identifying acid reflux can be tricky, as many of the symptoms are not obvious, and can be easily mistaken for something else, like a heart attack or common cold. However, if left untreated, acid reflux can cause esophagitis, a painful irritation of the esophagus that can lead to bleeding, ulcers and scarring in the esophagus. Chronic acid reflux has also been linked to Barrett's esophagus, which is an abnormal change in the cells that line the esophagus; a precursor to cancer.
Ok, you have acid reflux. Now what?
If you have acid reflux, simple lifestyle changes, like losing excess weight, eating smaller meals, and avoiding foods that seem to trigger heartburn can help.
Try to avoid things like:
Not everyone’s reflux is triggered by the same foods or drinks. If the items listed above don’t seem to get your acid churning, keep a food journal and note the meals that brought on reflux symptoms.
If you frequently suffer from acid reflux at night, you may find relief is as simple as avoiding big meals before bed and raising the head of your bed. Additionally, if you are a smoker, you may want to consider quitting. Smoking can weaken the valve in your throat, leading to acid reflux and heartburn.
Some other natural remedies to ease your heartburn and reflux are chewing gum or taking slippery elm extract. Chewing gum helps force fluids back into the stomach and flood esophagus with alkaline saliva, neutralizing acids that cause the characteristic burning sensations of heartburn. Slippery elm has been used historically to soothe inflammation, reduce swelling, and heal damaged tissues. The tree extract is said to thicken the layer of mucous lining the stomach, creating a stronger barrier against acid helping sooth acid reflux.
If these tips do not help, there is a wide array of over-the-counter medication to help ease symptoms. Stronger medications should be taken with care, as they can cause side effects. And remember, always contact your doctor if you are experiencing chronic and severe symptoms of acid reflux.