Stomach acid is the strong substance that allows us to digest our food and absorb nutrients. If your body is functioning normally, you probably never give your stomach acid much thought.
However, if the acid makes its way into the oesophagus it can be quite uncomfortable. It may simply manifest itself as a burning sensation and unpleasant taste in your mouth, but acid reflux can also be the sign of something more serious. It could be a warning from your body that you need to transition to a healthier life style.
When learning more about acid reflux, note that the term Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) refers to the spectrum of conditions related to acid reflux; from simple heartburn to oesophagitis. The cause, duration, and intensity of your acid reflux will help determine the proper course of treatment.
What causes acid reflux?
At the bottom of your oesophagus is the Lower Oesophageal Sphincter (LOS). This is a ring of muscle that acts as a valve, ensuring that the food you eat goes into your stomach and the acid stays where it is meant to be. When this valve cannot close properly, acid rises into the oesophagus and the unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, regurgitation, nausea, and hiccups begin.
There are many reasons why your LOS can weaken and allow acid to pass through. Determining the exact cause of each patient’s acid reflux can be difficult. The following are the most common factors that put you at risk:
- Being overweight – if you are not at a healthy weight, there may be too much pressure on your stomach. This can apply stress to your LOS and eventually weaken it to a point where acid can pass through.
- Frequent meals with high fat content – fat is challenging for the body to digest, which causes acid to remain in the stomach for a longer period of time. If you constantly consume high fat foods your stomach is working overtime and this can lead to acid reflux.
- Pregnancy – the hormonal changes experienced during pregnancy, and increase in pressure on the stomach as the baby grows, can lead to weakening of the lower oesophageal sphincter.
- Smoking – Nicotine relaxes the LOS, making it easier for acid to travel up the oesophagus. Plus, smokers tend to cough, and coughing generates pressure in the abdomen which can worsen the symptoms of acid reflux.
- Irritating substances – Spicy foods, coffee, citrus, peppermint and even wine can irritate your stomach. This results in more acid being produced, which in turn makes you more vulnerable to acid reflux.
How do you treat it?
Acid reflux and all of its symptoms are treatable. The first step should be to eliminate risk factors and make lifestyle adjustments. Losing weight and quitting smoking are highly recommendable. Cutting down on fat, coffee, alcohol and other irritating substances is also important.
If you experience repeated episodes of acid reflux, medication can be taken on an ‘as needed’ basis in the dosage prescribed by your general practitioner.
If after 4-5 days of treatments your symptoms have not responded to treatment, or if the intensity of the acid reflux episodes is high, you should speak to your doctor immediately. It may be a sign of oesophagitis.
Extreme or prolonged cases of acid reflux can lead to oesophagitis, which is an inflammation of the lining of the oesophagus. If your heartburn is very intense and does not fade away nor respond to standard treatment, it is important to seek help from a health professional as soon as possible.
Oesophagitis can lead to scarring, narrowing of the tissue, ulcers and make you more prone to developing cancerous cells.
Your GP should be able to diagnose normal acid reflux just from evaluating your symptoms, however if you experience intense symptoms such as difficulty swallowing, an endoscopy may be required. This procedure consists of a long tube with a camera and a light on one end that is lowered through the patient’s throat to determine the state of the oesophagus and stomach lining. It can help your doctor diagnose and treat your specific case.
You do not have to live with heartburn. A visit to your GP can help you determine the cause of your acid reflux and how to treat it before it progresses to oesophagitis. Healthy lifestyle changes and appropriate medication can be enough to help stop the burn.
Further information: NHS – heartburn and acid reflux