GERD (GastroEsophageal Reflux Disease), or what most people call heart burn, ails at least 1 in 4 people in America. While it is a very uncomfortable condition with unpleasant sensations, it can have serious long lasting damage to your esophagus lining. Damage moves from irritation to scarring, constriction, ulcers, and can even lead to esophageal cancer. As a functional medicine dietitian, it is my firm belief that treating the root cause of the condition rather than taking pills forever to mask it will pay off down the road in improved health. Treatment of GERD can be achieved by proper nutrition, elimination of food agents that trigger GERD, changing lifestyle patterns, leveraging weight loss where indicated and choosing natural, healing supplements where needed.
In normal digestion, your food passes from your mouth to your esophagus ( a long thin passageway that connects from mouth to stomach) and from your esophagus to your stomach. And on down the hatch it continues. Connecting your esophagus and your stomach is a door, we call that door the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). After food passes through this door, it should close, to prevent food and stomach acid from flowing back up. Some medicines have a side effect of lowering LES function. Other than medicine, sometimes the LES just becomes weakened, or more relaxed that it should be. This can be do to chronic overeating and stretching of the stomach. And with the help of a new study, inflammation may play a major factor in this weakening, a larger role than previously imagined. Because stomach acid is so acidic, it can be painful when it climbs back up touching tissue that wasn't created to withstand exposure to acid. Helping to remove inflammatory and painful triggers and giving the body a chance to lower inflammation, it can heal itself over time.
Many medicines taken, even over the counter, block production of stomach acid. This follows the thought that less stomach acid, means less exposure when the LES is weak and opening. This can be very effective in relieving heartburn, however it just slaps a band-aid on the symptoms, and creates larger problems down the line. This is an interesting band-aid, because many sufferers of GERD have been found to create insufficient amounts of stomach acid to begin with. This leads to a theory, that less acid creates the problem of food sitting in the stomach for too long, increasing chances of back flow and heartburn. These medicines are a temporary fix for symptom management and have increased risk of conditions such as vitamin deficiencies, kidney disease, allergies, skin disorders, osteoporosis, heart attacks, GI infections and depression. I would vote we look for the cause of GERD and treat it, rather than only covering up the symptoms.
Overweight or Obesity
Consuming Large Meals
Eating Before Laying Down
High Stress Levels
SIBO - Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth
Pregnancy (just due to baby pushing up on all your organs)
Some of these could be changed with simple lifestyle modifications. Treatment can include the following:
Eat foods rich in anti-inflammatory factors: Fish, Fruit, Vegetables, Healthy Fats (avocados, nuts, olives)
If you have implemented all of the above and still experience mild GERD, supplements have been known to help. These are natural supplements that can assist the body to strengthen the LES or heal the esophageal lining. Licorice, Zinc Carnosine, L-Glutamine, Magnesium.
With the above treatment options, lifestyle modifications and supplements, an individual can work towards healing their body rather than masking the symptoms with medicine that is not providing a long term solution. In time digestion can return to normal and the LES will be able to heal itself.
Caitlin Johnson is a dietitian, wife, lover of ice cream, chef wannabe, California-girl, Christian, liver eating, "food-avore."
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