Acid reflux occurs when acidic digestive juices of the stomach enter the esophagus—the food pipe connecting the mouth and stomach. Normally, a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) contracts to keep acid from flowing up out of the stomach. The LES can also relax to let air escape from the stomach, such as when you burp. However, for some, the LES ceases to function properly. When this happens, acidic digestive juices from the stomach come into contact with the esophagus, and acid reflux occurs. In addition to heartburn, symptoms of gastric reflux can include a hoarse voice, burping, sore throat, and regurgitation.
Although bothersome, acid (or gastric) reflux is a common occurrence. While most individuals will experience reflux at some point in their lives, reflux that occurs weekly is called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. The Mayo Clinic defines GERD as mild reflux occurring twice weekly, or moderate-to-severe reflux occurring weekly. GERD affects 20 percent of the American population and up to 25 percent of pregnant women. Symptoms of gastric reflux can also include heartburn, hoarse voice, burping, sore throat, and regurgitation.
Why Does Reflux Occur?
Western medicine says that reflux is caused by a dysfunction in the LES that results in the valve not functioning properly. One study has shown that individuals with more acidic stomach secretions have higher rates of gastric reflux. To tackle this issue, Western medical practitioners often prescribe medications to help neutralize stomach acid. While these medications do not prevent the reflux from occurring, they do lessen its harmful effects.
Ayurveda says that reflux occurs when an individual has an imbalance of Pitta, or qualities of fire and water. Other symptoms of an imbalanced Pitta may include a reddened face, high blood pressure, sarcasm, anger, or diarrhea. Ayurvedic strategies to address reflux involve balancing the fiery nature of Pitta with qualities that are cooling.
Whether you explain the condition of reflux through the lens of Ayurvedic or Western medicine, practitioners from both approaches agree on these basic recommendations for neutralizing its effects.
1. Eat Regular, Sensibly-Sized Meals
The higher the volume of food and beverage in the stomach, the more chance there is of it “splashing” up and into the esophagus. Avoid pressuring the sphincter by eating to the point of being full and then stopping. Eat at least three meals daily to keep from getting too hungry and then overeating.
2. Decrease Intake of Alcohol and Caffeine
Although the exact reason is not known, caffeine and alcohol are commonly reported to precede heartburn. One thought is that these chemicals relax the esophageal sphincter, leading to higher chance of reflux into the esophagus. Some scientists also believe that the acidic nature of caffeinated or alcoholic beverages leads to higher gastric acidity and, therefore, reflux. While the exact method requires further study, if you experience acid reflux, you may want to try eliminating alcohol and caffeine from your diet temporarily in order to observe the effects.
3. Avoid Eating Before Bedtime
Finish your meal at least two to three hours before lying down to sleep for the night. This helps ensure the food in your stomach is digested prior to lying horizontally, where stomach contents have more of a chance of moving back up into the esophagus.
You can take this one step further by elevating your upper body while sleeping rather than lying flat. If you do not have an adjustable bed, try propping yourself up on pillows to keep your head and chest higher than your waist. This helps your body, and stomach, work with gravity to promote digestion and keep stomach acid from splashing upward.
4. Lose Weight If You Are Overweight
Similar to many factors related to reflux, the exact mechanism that links being overweight and obese with increased reflux is mostly speculative. Whatever the cause, find that symptoms of reflux are positively correlated with body mass index, or BMI. Similarly, losing weight often leads to an improvement in reflux symptoms.
5. Avoid Foods Known to Trigger Reflux Exacerbation
These foods may include:
- Spicy or acidic ingredients
Not everybody is sensitive to these foods, but some people with reflux notice exacerbated symptoms after eating them.
6. Drink to Promote Digestion
Aim to drink the majority of your fluids between meals, rather than with your meal. This helps to keep the volume in your stomach down at meal times. You may also try avoiding carbonated beverages. The bubbles in carbonated beverages can lead to burping, which provide opportunities for acid to reflux into the food pipe.
7. Practice Stress Reduction
While it is not known exactly how stress exacerbates acid reflux, have shown that the two are undeniably linked. Identify the triggers for stress in your life, and brainstorm sustainable coping strategies. Ideas may include:
Although gastric reflux is common, it can lead to serious complications, including Barrett’s esophagus (damage to the LES that is both painful and premalignant) and esophageal cancer. If you struggle with heartburn or other symptoms of reflux, make sure to consult with your health care provider. He or she may recommend medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of both.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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