An onset of mid-chest discomfort, changes with your ability to swallow and the unexpected taste in the back of your throat of spoiled food can be extremely unpleasant. If this happens once or twice, you may not think anything of it. If you experience these symptoms more regularly, it’s best to consult with your doctor as you may have a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
What is GERD?
With normal digestion, the food you chew and swallow passes from your mouth, through the esophagus and into the stomach, which contains stomach acid. At the end of the esophagus is a valve that opens and closes with this process. GERD occurs when this valve on the esophagus opens and some of the stomach acid flows the wrong way into the esophagus. Since the stomach acid is so acidic (it’s required to break down the food you eat!) this can cause irritation in the esophagus and other uncomfortable symptoms. Treatment is often necessary to help manage these symptoms. If left untreated, GERD can progress into more complicated conditions of the esophagus.
Is GERD Common?
In the past, diagnosis of GERD was more common in the middle aged to older adult population. Recent research shows that this no longer may be the case, and nearly one-third of Americans may have this condition. A growing number of cases are being diagnosed in the age range of 30 to 39, with many individuals needing medication treatment or other therapy. While this increase in cases is a concern, experts recommend several diet and lifestyle changes to prevent or help manage GERD.
Diet and Lifestyle Changes: Where to Start?
Weight matters. Being overweight or obese can increase GERD symptoms. Following a healthy diet and getting regular physical activity can help with weight management and improve overall health.
Review medications. Some common over-the-counter medications can cause or help reduce symptoms of GERD. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist about medications to find the right balance to manage your symptoms.
Quit smoking. Tobacco can damage the lining of the esophagus and stomach, relaxes the esophageal valve, and causes increased production of stomach acid. By quitting smoking, damage to the esophagus and stomach is lessened and stomach acid production is reduced. As a result, GERD symptoms should improve.
Sleep with your head elevated. Positioning while you sleep can help alleviate GERD symptoms, especially if symptoms occur at night. Experts recommend use of extra pillows or a wedge pillow so that your head is raised six to eight inches to support normal digestion and to prevent stomach acid backing up into the esophagus.
Careful timing of meals. Aim to curb meals and snacks for at least 3 hours before you lie down for the night. Allowing this extra time encourages normal digestion.
Choose foods wisely. While everyone is a little bit different in trigger foods, being aware of possible foods that contribute to GERD symptoms can be helpful. Most commonly, individuals with GERD experience discomfort with foods that are:
- high in fat
- acidic (think: tomatoes or oranges)
- contain garlic and onions
- are caffeinated or alcoholic
Eliminating or reducing these triggers is helpful for reducing GERD symptoms.
Stacey Phillips, MS, RD is a clinical dietitian working with general medicine, oncology, CKD, renal transplant recipients and living kidney donor patients. Outside of her work, Stacey is passionate about improving the resources available to individuals with chronic kidney disease and actively participates on several renal dietitian committees.
If you have more questions about GERD, it’s always a great idea to speak with a registered dietitian. Registered dietitians are the only credentialed experts qualified to address your unique health questions. Click here to request a direct consultation with a dietitian today!
Yamasaki T, Hemond C, Eisa M, Ganocy S, Fass R. The changing epidemiology of gastroesophageal reflux disease: are patients getting younger? J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2018;24(4):559-569.