Prevention & Recovery

What is gastroesophageal reflux disease?

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

What is gastroesophageal reflux disease?

This story was originally titled "Just Been Diagnosed: GERD" in the July 2011 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

What makes GERD different from a bad case of heartburn?

Heartburn is just one of the symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a digestive disorder in which stomach acid or bile flows up into the esophagus, where it scorches the sensitive lining of the throat. The cause? A leaky seal in your pipes: The valve between your esophagus and stomach isn't closing properly after eating or drinking, which sets up a pattern of recurring heartburn and regurgitation. Other symptoms may include indigestion, weight loss, problems swallowing, hoarseness, chest pain and vomiting. Left untreated, GERD can lead to complications such as the narrowing of the esophagus, esophageal bleeding and ulcers, and even esophageal cancer.

Does this mean no more spicy food?
"As long as it doesn't bother you, you can continue to eat spicy food," says Dr. Sander Veldhuyzen van Zanten, head of gastroenterology at the University of Alberta. While foods and drinks such as chocolate, onions, alcohol, grapefruit juice, coffee and tea are common triggers for GERD symptoms, it's best to explore what you can tolerate and adjust your diet accordingly. This may simply mean consuming moderate amounts and reducing portion sizes, rather than completely eliminating foods you enjoy.

How else will GERD affect my eating habits?
You may want to schedule dinners a bit earlier than you're used to. Van Zanten suggests finishing an evening meal three to four hours before bedtime, as lying down after a meal creates the ideal condition for the reverse flow of stomach acid through the esophageal valve.

Page 1 of 2 – Learn what you can use to treat GERD symptoms, plus find out why losing weight can also help on page 2.

Can I keep using over-the-counter antacids?
While antacids are fine for treating occasional heartburn, they don't solve the underlying problem. "If you have heartburn more than twice a week, we recommend medication that lowers the acid production in the stomach," says van Zanten. You'll likely be prescribed one of two types of medication: either histamine-2 receptor blockers, such as ranitidine (Zantac), or the stronger proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), such as esomeprazole (Nexium). Currently, there are no medications that can fix the malfunctioning esophageal valve, but surgery to tighten the seal – by wrapping the top of the stomach around the bottom of the esophagus – is a consideration in extreme cases of GERD.

Contents under pressure
Losing that spare tire around your middle can also help alleviate gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms. According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (iffgd.org), excess abdominal fat can put the squeeze on your stomach, creating pressure that pushes acid up the esophagus.


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What is gastroesophageal reflux disease?

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