More than 60 million U.S. adults experience heartburn at least once a month, and at least 15 million as often as daily, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), more commonly known as acid reflux, is diagnosed when heartburn occurs more than twice a week.
Heartburn is just one symptom of acid reflux, which can also include excessive saliva. Heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. It’s what you feel when some of the acid content of the stomach flows up into the esophagus.
Acid reflux can affect people of all ages. The most common factors are lifestyle related and can be modified. Being overweight or obese is a risk factor. So is smoking, a sedentary lifestyle with no exercise and the body’s interaction with certain medications. Pregnancy can also cause acid reflux.
Dietary habits, such as overeating or eating too many unhealthy snacks, can contribute to occasional or regular bouts of acid reflux. This is why the holidays is the time of year when demand peaks for over-the-counter antacids and stomach acid reducers.
However, consuming too much of the wrong foods or drinks year-round (not just during the holidays) is one of the biggest risk factors for acid reflux.
Large portions of spicy or greasy foods, sweets, high-fat meals, or drinking too much alcohol or caffeinated drinks, can contribute to acid reflux.
“In our society, processed high-fat meals are common, and the portions are larger,” says Joanna Lopez, M.D. , a gastroenterologist with the Baptist Health Endoscopy Center . “Large portions lead to a more distended stomach, more acid production and worsening reflux symptoms. Unfortunately, dietary indiscretions are the norm in our society – the types of foods and the large portions that we tend to eat.”
When a primary care physician refers a patient with GERD symptoms to Dr. Lopez, he or she has usually suffered from acid reflux for a while and tried some of the many over-the-counter antacids and acid reducers available.
Doctors prescribe medications to combat chronic acid reflux because the condition, if left untreated, can cause inflammation of the esophagus (esophagitis), which increases the risk of pre-cancerous cells in the esophagus. The bottom line, says Dr. Lopez: It’s best to adopt dietary practices that can help you avoid having to take these meds for a prolonged period of time.
Gastroenterologists recommend these tips for avoiding acid reflux:
- Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.
- Reduce or eliminate fatty, spicy or greasy foods.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol.
- Don’t smoke.
- Reduce meal portion sizes.
- Don’t eat within 3 hours before bedtime.
- Eat slowly. Eating too quickly can be unhealthy for digestion.
- Stay upright after meals (gravity works against GERD sufferers).