If you have persistent heartburn, acid reflux, and difficulty swallowing, you may be experiencing symptoms of GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease. GERD is a chronic condition that counts for approximately 20% of digestive disorders that are diagnosed in the United States.
GERD can be caused by a variety of mechanisms ranging from internal to structural, resulting in the breakdown of the barrier or sphincter separating the esophagus from the stomach and allowing acidic gastric contents to reach the esophagus. It is an uncomfortable condition that can have a significant impact on your quality of life. Stomach acid is inflammatory to the esophagus and when exposed to the acid contents often or long enough, the esophagus inner lining or mucosa starts to get damaged. If left untreated, GERD can cause long-term damage to the esophagus. In some cases, it can lead to health conditions like Barrett Esophagus (a precancerous condition) Esophageal Strictures, or Erosive Esophagitis.
Although GERD can negatively impact your quality of life, there are plenty of solutions. Lifestyle changes can reduce or even eliminate your symptoms and provide much-needed relief. Here are some lifestyle changes that you can make today to begin alleviating your symptoms.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
GERD is strongly associated with increased weight and obesity, and studies have shown that even individuals with an average BMI can acquire symptoms of GERD after significant weight gain. Likewise, those suffering from GERD with a high BMI have seen a drastic decrease, and in some cases elimination, of symptoms by bringing their BMI down into a more optimal range and maintaining a healthy weight.
Eat Smaller Meals, Slowly
Digestion begins with the enzymes in your saliva, so savoring each bite, chewing thoroughly, and eating slowly and mindfully gives your body the time and resources it needs to properly break down food.
Fast eating also doesn’t give your stomach time to send signals to the brain that it is full. This commonly leads to overeating and GERD symptoms. It is best to eat until you are approximately 80% full, allowing time for your stomach to communicate with the brain.
Sit Upright After Meals
Lying down after a large meal may sound relaxing, however it is anything but for your digestive system. For those living with GERD, gravity will force the contents of the stomach up toward the esophagus, putting strain on the lower esophageal sphincter. This is especially true when sleeping after a meal. It is best to stay upright for at least an hour after eating.
Prop up Your Head While Sleeping
In a healthy esophagus, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) closes tightly to keep stomach acid in its place. For those living with GERD, the LES weakens over time. A weak LES can’t firmly secure stomach acid. When you sleep lying flat, gravity and your weakened LES, allow stomach acid to rise up into the esophagus, causing uncomfortable or painful acid reflux.
If GERD symptoms prevent you from getting a good night’s rest, try sleeping on an incline using additional pillows, or even a foam wedge to prevent long-term damage to your esophagus. To further safeguard against GERD symptoms at night, try to avoid eating about 3 hours before bed to control stomach acid and combat your symptoms.
Most canned and bottled beverages are highly acidic. It is wise to limit or eliminate them altogether if you suffer from GERD. In the case of carbonated beverages, they are often considered to be a “triple threat” because they contain:
- Air bubbles
- High acidity
Caffeine can cause the LES to relax, making it more likely that stomach acid will leak into the esophagus. The bubbly carbonation creates more pressure inside the stomach, contributing to acid reflux. And many of the leading sodas on the market today contain a pH level of 2.4 – 2.5- almost as acidic as stomach acid itself! This means that carbonated beverages, particularly soda, should be avoided for those with GERD.
Go For a Walk After a Meal
Earlier we discussed how gravity plays a big role in the occurrence of acid reflux. After a meal, your stomach is full, producing acid, and working to digest the food you’ve just consumed. Going for a short walk after a meal is a great way to encourage gastric juices to flow in the right direction. Food will move steadily through the digestive tract, and your upright posture will assist in keeping stomach acid in the stomach where it belongs, and not leaking into the esophagus.
The correlation between stress and GERD symptoms is still unclear, but studies suggest that acute periods of high stress can lead to worse symptoms. Whatever the reason may be, it is best to incorporate stress-management into your daily routine to help manage GERD symptoms.
Activities such as yoga, meditation, and slow, deep breathing are all great practices to incorporate into your day. Deep breathing in particular, has been found to be very helpful to controlling stress.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise:
- Place one hand over your chest, and the other hand on your belly
- Breathe deeply using your diaphragm, ensuring that your belly rises and falls with each breath, while your chest remains still.
As with caffeine, the nicotine in cigarettes causes the LES to relax, creating more opportunity for stomach acid to leak through. Avoid smoking to prevent GERD symptoms, as well as a variety of other health conditions down the road.
Identify & Avoid Your Personal Trigger Foods
Highly acidic and spicy foods may aggravate symptoms of GERD for some people. Keeping a health journal for a few weeks is a great way to track your symptoms and any potential trigger foods that sets them off.
Try to avoid foods that are high in fat and sugar. These foods cause your body to produce excessive amounts of acid. It is also best to opt for drinking between meals rather than during. Adding liquid to your meal adds more volume to your stomach, which often causes acid reflux. Common trigger foods include:
- Citrus fruits and juices
- High-Fat foods
- Spicy foods
Do You Need Help With Your Gut Health?
If you have been experiencing persistent acid reflux or GERD symptoms and need additional support, it can be difficult to find the help you need. If you want to maximize your gut health, you can download the Doctor Méndez Intro to Gut Health or book an appointment with her today to get help!