Acid reflux or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) affects up to 20% of the population in the Western world, and this number is increasing. Acid reflux is a condition where the acid that is produced by the stomach goes into the oesophagus and damages the cells, causing pain. The acid is able to pass up through the circular muscle between the stomach and oesophagus (sphincter muscle) into the oesophagus because the sphincter muscle is unable to close properly after allowing food into the stomach. This article will explore what acid reflux does to the body, and how it can be prevented through diet and lifestyle changes.
Acid reflux in the body
The stomach is a very hostile environment, and produces acids with a pH of around 2, the primary acid being hydrochloric acid (HCL). This acid is able to aid with digestion and break down foods which enter the stomach. The acid is unable to digest the stomach itself because there is a thik mucous barrier which lines the stomach protecting it. However, the oesophagus does not have this mucus lining, and if the sphincter muscle between the oesophagus doesn’t close properly, acid will pass up into the oesophagus where is causes a burning sensations which is often referred to as heartburn.
Exposure of the cells in the oesophagus to stomach acid will cause inflammation, but this is not serious, and the body will be able to repair the damage relatively quickly – this is known as heartburn, and many people experience it every now and again, especially after a large meal. However, over a long period of time this regular exposure to stomach acid can cause oesophageal ulcers and/ or a condition called Barrett’s Oesophagus to develop. Oesophageal ulcers are a painful condition and can make swallowing quite difficult, but can be treated. Barrett’s Oesophagus is a condition where the cells in the oesophagus become so regularly damaged the cells become pre-cancerous cells, which can lead to a dangerous form of cancer. Having Barrett’s Oesophagus does not mean you have oesophageal cancer, but it greatly increases your risk of developing it.
Diet changes to treat acid reflux
The cause for acid reflux does vary from person to person, and someones dietary trigger for acid reflux may have no affect on someone else. However, there are some triggers which seem to be more common than others, and so for many, making these dietary changes will be a good starting point for fighting acid reflux:
- Caffeine is a very common trigger, and so sufferers should minimize all sources of caffeine. The most common sources are coffee, tea and energy drinks.
- Highly fatty foods are another common trigger, especially pastries, fast foods, fried foods and oily salad dressing. Interestingly nuts, seeds and fish, which are also high in fats do not seem to be a trigger, suggesting that it is likely that only certain fats cause acid reflux.
- Acidic fruits, and acidic fruit juices. These seem to be a trigger simply because of their high acidity. The most acidic fruits are citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons and should be avoided where possible.
- A number of drinks have been identified as triggers such as tea, coffee (even decaffeinated), alcoholic beverages and carbonated drinks have been identified as a trigger for many. These should be avoided if you suffer from acid reflux, and water is the most preferable choice.
- Spicy foods are a major trigger for acid reflux, and should be avoided.
- Drinking plenty of water will dilute stomach acid, and make and acid reflux less damaging to the oesophagus.
- Adding baking soda to drinks will neutralize the acidity in the stomach, and help to prevent damage from acid reflux.
Other triggers, which are less common, include bread, mints, onions, garlic and tomato based products, and it is recommended to try and limit these foods.
Lifestyle changes to treat acid reflux
There are a number of lifestyle changes which can also help reduce acid reflux, which, when in conjunction to dietary changes can make significant differences:
- Smoking is linked to increased stomach acid production and weakening of the sphincter muscle. Reducing/ quitting smoking will help the sphincter muscle recover and may even prevent stomach acid passing through it.
- Eating small meals but more regularly results in less acid being produced, which mean the risk of acid passing back through the sphincter is reduced. This reduces the amount of acid that the stomach produces.
- Not eating before bed prevents acid reflux occurring late at night. This is because when you lie down, it is easier for the stomach acid to move horizontally into the esophagus. When you eat, the amount of acid in the stomach increases, and remains at a high level for 3-4 hours after eating, wand the increased amount of acid increases the risk of acid reflux.
Acid reflux is a relatively common condition, which seems to have be triggered by a number of different diet and lifestyle choices. In the short term it poses no major health risk, and many people will experience heartburn once in a while. However, if acid reflux persists for a long period of time, it can pose significant health risks such as ulcers and an increased risk of oesophageal cancer. It is therefore recommended that if you regularly experience heartburn you identify the diet/ lifestyle triggers and minimize your exposure to them.
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