What is Acid Reflux Disease?

GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is the condition that develops when the ring of muscle between the stomach and the esophagus (called the lower esophageal sphincter) becomes weak and allows stomach content to flow back up into the esophagus causing heartburn and other symptoms.

Untreated GERD can cause serious health problems. The acid can damage your esophagus and make it hard to swallow.

In some people with GERD, the cells in the esophagus can become abnormal. These abnormal cells could lead to cancer of the esophagus, although this is rare. 
One of the most common diseases affecting millions of people every day is called Acid Reflux Disease. It is a chronic condition in which food and stomach acids— which are meant to stay in the stomach — come back up the throat. You may feel it as heartburn that keeps recurring. This unwanted reversal of the stomach’s contents is called “reflux.” It causes mild to severe discomfort commonly called heartburn or indigestion. Sufferers of Acid Reflux often have difficulty with sleep because the reflux worsens when lying down. No one enjoys ongoing pain and the burning sensation of acid in the chest and throat. Many people who experience Acid Reflux Disease worry that they may be feeling the onset of a heart attack. Indeed, the location of the pain is in very much the same part of the body because the stomach sits right next to the heart. Over time, the chronic reoccurrence of acid reflux can lead to GERD and permanent damage—even cancer! Just because you have occasional heartburn does not mean you have GERD. GERD is a more serious form of acid reflux with symptoms occurring at least twice per week and affecting your quality of life. Left untreated, GERD can cause other serious problems including difficulty in eating and swallowing. After time with this condition, the cells in the esophagus turn abnormal. It’s possible that, left untreated, the abnormal cells can lead to esophageal cancer.

How does one get Acid Reflux Disease?

When you eat, food moves down the throat to the stomach. It passes through the esophagus. At the bottom of the esophagus sits a ring of muscle fibers (the lower esophageal sphincter). The sphincter prevents the food you swallowed from returning to the esophagus from the stomach.

When this ring of muscle does not sufficiently close, the contents in the stomach can leak upward into the esophagus. This ring of muscle at the top of the stomach is meant to keep the contents inside the stomach until they are ready to continue down the digestive tract. The leaking is called reflux. Medically, since it comes from the first part of the enclosed gastrointestinal system and at the base of the esophagus, it’s called gastroesophageal reflux. Besides the discomfort of partially digested food coming back up the throat, the strong acids in the stomach come up as well, causing a burning sensation.

Although the lining in the stomach is able to handle strong hydrochloric acid, the esophagus cannot. Long term exposure to stomach acids will damage the lining of the esophagus.

Stomach acid is critical for breaking food down so the body can absorb its nourishment. In addition to creating discomfort and a bitter taste, chronic repetition of reflux can lead to serious medical complications from the damage done to the sensitive lining of the throat, which was never meant to come in contact with the harsh stomach acids. Reflux may cause symptoms, such as heartburn, regurgitation, dyspepsia, nausea after eating, stomach fullness or bloating, and upper abdominal pain and discomfort.

The Causes of Acid Reflux Disease or GERD

No one really knows why the lower esophageal sphincter stops working properly, why it becomes weak or relaxes inappropriately. There are, however, several contributing factors: obesity, pregnancy, and medications such as antihistamines, antidepressants, painkillers and sedatives.

Coping with Acid Reflux Disease

Many of the medications used to lessen the symptoms of Acid Reflux, (they don’t cure it!) lead to other health problems, such as the weakening of the ability to assimilate nutrition when food isn’t broken down, as completely as it otherwise would be—a side effect of lowering stomach acid. Also, many antacids lower the body’s ability to assimilate calcium, the mineral most important for maintaining strong bones and muscles.

Studies have been done to evaluate the effect of tobacco and alcohol cessation on GERD and no change in symptom or esophageal pH were noted for which reason cessation of these items, which is still being recommended my some doctors, but may not be helpful.

No studies have been done to assess the effect of stopping the consumption of chocolate, caffeine, spicy foods, citrus and carbonated beverages on GERD symptoms for which reason selective elimination is considered if the patient notes improvement in symptoms when eliminating any of these food items.

Treatment of GERD

Surgery can be done to tighten the opening at the top of the stomach. Unfortunately, surgeons can’t strengthen the sphincter muscle whose job it is to keep the contents moving downstream. By tightening the opening to the stomach, patients must relearn how to eat in smaller bites so that not much food is passing down the throat at once. This can be quite challenging. Furthermore, surgery is often not a permanent solution.

Think of the stomach as a bag with openings at the top and bottom. When you eat, the food goes through the opening at the top. When you’ve finished eating, the opening is supposed to close. Once the opening closes, stomach acids are released into the bag, where they break down the composition of the food. When the stomach’s job of breaking food down is complete, the opening at the bottom releases, and the food continues on its journey.

The stomach is not where your body absorbs nutrition. After being chewed and swallowed, the stomach is the second stop on the long road of digestion. The body absorbs the nutritional value of food when it is broken down into molecular components in the small intestine.

Your digestive tract is meant to be a one-way thoroughfare. Problems arise when food goes in the wrong direction. There are, however, times when food comes back up from the stomach for good reasons, like when we have eaten bad food and the body needs to rid itself of toxins. Keep in mind that occasional reflux is not the same thing as the disease. Acid Reflux and GERD are chronic conditions that may increase or decrease in severity, but never go away.

What are the Symptoms of Acid Reflux Disease?

Acid Reflux Disease is one of the more hidden conditions that affects millions of people, yet it doesn’t garner the level of attention that many other chronic diseases do. Acid Reflux symptoms are precipitated by the stomach’s rerouting of its contents, including normal secretions of digestive acid that are sent back into the throat. Food is not meant to return the way it came, unless it needs to be expelled to rid the body of toxins. The digestive acid burns the delicate lining of the esophagus, which was never meant to handle stomach acid. Another consequence of Acid Reflux is that it reduces the body’s normal ability to receive nourishment.

People with Acid Reflux Disease may have the symptoms of coughing, clearing of the throat, or even asthma symptoms. Another symptom can be a hoarse and raspy voice. Even if you do not have heartburn symptoms, you can have the condition. A bitter taste in the mouth is another common symptom with Acid Reflux Disease.

One of the more severe symptoms that people with Acid Reflux have to live with is the inability to sleep lying down. Acid Reflux intensifies when a person is horizontal, making it virtually impossible to get proper sleep. Medications may reduce the stomach acids—and thereby interfere with properly digesting your food—but they will not stop the problem. At best, they can lessen the severity, but the condition persists. On top of that — as is often the case with medications — there are unintended side effects that can be as distressing as the disease they’re trying to alleviate.

Some of the Symptoms of Acid Reflux Disease

  • Painful or difficult swallowing
  • Feeling that food is stuck behind your breastbone
  • Sore throat
  • Burning pain in the chest, commonly called heartburn
  • Hiccups
  • Feeling filled up quickly when eating
  • Nausea after eating
  • Regurgitation (when food comes back up)
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Choking or shortness of breath
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Bleeding
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Your symptoms may worsen upon bending over, lying down, or eating. Symptoms can also be more severe during the night.