Gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive disorder that affects the lower esophageal sphincter (LES)–the muscle connecting the esophagus with the stomach. Many people, including pregnant women, suffer from heartburn or acid indigestion caused by GERD. Doctors believe that some people suffer from GERD due to a condition called hiatal hernia. In most cases, heartburn can be relieved through diet and lifestyle changes; however, some people may require medication or surgery. This fact sheet provides information on GERD-its causes, symptoms, treatment, and long-term complications.
What Is Gastro-esophageal Reflux?
Gastro-esophageal refers to the stomach and esophagus. Reflux means to flow back or return. Therefore, gastro-esophageal reflux is the return of the stomach’s contents back up into the esophagus.
In normal digestion, the LES opens to allow food to pass into the stomach and closes to prevent food and acidic stomach juices from flowing back into the esophagus. Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when the LES is weak or relaxes inappropriately allowing the stomach’s contents to flow up into the esophagus. Figure 1 shows the location of the LES between the esophagus and the stomach.
What Is the Role of Hiatal Hernia?
Some doctors believe a hiatal hernia may weaken the LES and cause reflux. Hiatal hernia occurs when the upper part of the stomach moves up into the chest through a small opening in the diaphragm (diaphragmatic hiatus). The diaphragm is the muscle separating the stomach from the chest. Recent studies show that the opening in the diaphragm acts as an additional sphincter around the lower end of the esophagus. Studies also show that hiatal hernia results in retention of acid and other contents above this opening. These substances can reflux easily into the esophagus.
Coughing, vomiting, straining, or sudden physical exertion can cause increased pressure in the abdomen resulting in hiatal hernia. Obesity and pregnancy also contribute to this condition. Many otherwise healthy people age 50 and over have a small hiatal hernia. Although considered a condition of middle age, hiatal hernias affect people of all ages.
What Other Factors Contribute to GERD?
Dietary and lifestyle choices may contribute to GERD. Certain foods and beverages, including chocolate, peppermint, fried or fatty foods, coffee, or alcoholic beverages, may weaken the LES causing reflux and heartburn. Studies show that cigarette smoking relaxes the LES. Obesity and pregnancy can also cause GERD.
What Does Heartburn Feel Like?
Heartburn, also called acid indigestion, is the most common symptom of GERD and usually feels like a burning chest pain beginning behind the breastbone and moving upward to the neck and throat. Many people say it feels like food is coming back into the mouth leaving an acid or bitter taste.
The burning, pressure, or pain of heartburn can last as long as 2 hours and is often worse after eating. Lying down or bending over can also result in heartburn. Many people obtain relief by standing upright or by taking an antacid that clears acid out of the esophagus.
Heartburn pain can be mistaken for the pain associated with heart disease or a heart attack, but there are differences. Exercise may aggravate pain resulting from heart disease, and rest may relieve the pain. Heartburn pain is less likely to be associated with physical activity.
What Is the Treatment for GERD?
Doctors recommend lifestyle and dietary changes for most people with GERD. Treatment aims at decreasing the amount of reflux or reducing damage to the lining of the esophagus from refluxed materials.
Avoiding foods and beverages that can weaken the LES is recommended. These foods include chocolate, peppermint, fatty foods, coffee, and alcoholic beverages. Foods and beverages that can irritate a damaged esophageal lining, such as citrus fruits and juices, tomato products, and pepper, should also be avoided.
Decreasing the size of portions at mealtime may also help control symptoms. Eating meals at least 2 to 3 hours before bedtime may lessen reflux by allowing the acid in the stomach to decrease and the stomach to empty partially. In addition, being overweight often worsens symptoms. Many overweight people find relief when they lose weight.
Cigarette smoking weakens the LES. Therefore, stopping smoking is important to reduce GERD symptoms.
Elevating the head of the bed on 6-inch blocks or sleeping on a specially designed wedge reduces heartburn by allowing gravity to minimize reflux of stomach contents into the esophagus.
Antacids taken regularly can neutralize acid in the esophagus and stomach and stop heartburn. Many people find that nonprescription antacids provide temporary or partial relief. An antacid combined with a foaming agent such as alginic acid helps some people. These compounds are believed to form a foam barrier on top of the stomach that prevents acid reflux from occuring.
Long-term use of antacids, however, can result in side effects, including diarrhea, altered calcium metabolism (a change in the way the body breaks down and uses calcium), and buildup of magnesium in the body. Too much magnesium can be serious for patients with kidney disease. If antacids are needed for more than 3 weeks, a doctor should be consulted.
Tips To Control Heartburn
- Avoid foods and beverages that affect LES pressure or irritate the esophagus lining, including fried and fatty foods, peppermint, chocolate, alcohol, coffee, citrus fruit and juices, and tomato products.
- Lose weight if overweight.
- Stop smoking.
- Elevate the head of the bed 6 inches.
- Avoid lying down 2 to 3 hours after eating.
- Take an antacid.
What Are the Complications of Long-Term GERD?
Sometimes GERD results in serious complications. Esophagitis can occur as a result of too much stomach acid in the esophagus. Esophagitis may cause esophageal bleeding or ulcers. In addition, a narrowing or stricture of the esophagus may occur from chronic scarring. Some people develop a condition known as Barrett’s esophagus, which is severe damage to the skin-like lining of the esophagus. Doctors believe this condition may be a precursor to esophageal cancer.
Nutritional supplements that may be helpful
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps squelch free radical molecules, is low in the stomach juice of people with chronic gastritis. When people with gastritis took 500 mg of vitamin C twice a day, vitamin C levels in their gastric juice rose.
There is some evidence that the antioxidant beta-carotene may also reduce free radical damage in the stomach,19 and eating foods high in beta-carotene has been linked to a decreased risk of developing chronic atrophic gastritis. In preliminary research from Russia, giving 30,000 IU beta-carotene per day to people with ulcers or gastritis led to the disappearance of gastric erosions. Combining vitamin C and beta-carotene also led to improvement in most people with chronic atrophic gastritis.
Amino Acid Therapy
Several amino acids have shown promise for people with gastritis. In a double-blind study, taking 200 mg of cysteine four times daily provided significant benefit for 56 individuals with bleeding gastritis caused by NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like aspirin) use. Cysteine is a sulfur-containing amino acid that stimulates healing of gastritis. In another trial, preliminary findings showed that 1–4 grams of N-acetyl cysteine given to people with atrophic gastritis for four weeks appeared to increase healing. Glutamine is a main energy source for cells in the stomach and may also increase blood flow to this region. When burn victims were supplemented with the amino acid glutamine, they did not develop stress ulcers even after several operations. It remains unclear to what extent glutamine supplementation might prevent or help existing gastritis. Preliminary evidence suggests that the amino acid arginine may both protect the stomach and increase its blood flow, but research has yet to investigate the effects of arginine in people with gastritis.
Zinc and vitamin A, nutrients that aid in healing, are commonly used to help people with peptic ulcers. For example, the ulcers of individuals taking 220 mg of zinc three times per day healed three times faster than those of people who took placebo.29 While the research does not yet show that zinc specifically helps people with gastritis, taking it may nevertheless be useful. The amount of zinc used in this study is very high compared with what most people take (15–40 mg per day). Even at these levels, it is necessary to take 1–3 mg of copper per day to avoid a copper deficiency.
People who took 50,000 IU of vitamin A three times a day experienced a significant decrease in both ulcer size and pain.30 Because this amount of vitamin A is very high and can be quite toxic, usage requires the guidance of a doctor. A safe amount for women of childbearing age is 10,000 IU per day and probably 25,000 IU for other adults. In preliminary research from Bulgaria, using vitamin A together with drugs and proper nutrition eliminated erosive gastritis after three weeks in three-quarters of affected individuals.