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Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, affects about 20 percent of Americans. The chronic condition causes abdominal discomfort after meals and may lead to serious health problems if not addressed. 


What is GERD?

GERD is a digestive disorder that occurs when the muscle connecting your esophagus to your stomach doesn’t close completely. This allows foods and stomach acid to flow back into your esophagus—the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. It causes a burning sensation and abdominal discomfort commonly called heartburn or acid indigestion. 


How does GERD occur?

When you swallow, a ring-shaped muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) relaxes so food or drink can flow into your stomach. It then closes to stop your stomach’s contents from flowing into your esophagus. If the LES becomes weakened or relaxes when it shouldn’t then food and digestive liquids enter the esophagus. 


When does heartburn become GERD?

Many people experience heartburn from time to time. Spicy, fried and fatty foods, coffee, tomatoes, citrus fruits and chocolate can trigger heartburn in many people. But yoou may have GERD if you have heartburn frequently or take over-the-counter heartburn medication more than twice a week. 


What are the symptoms of GERD?

If you have GERD, you may experience: 

  • A burning sensation in your chest (heartburn) after eating. It may be worse while lying down. 
  • Bad breath
  • Bitter taste in the mouth
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling of a lump in your throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain in the upper abdomen or neck
  • Persistent cough
  • Regurgitation of food or sour liquid


Who is at risk for GERD? 

While anyone can develop GERD, the following can lead to higher risk.

  • Overweight or obese
  • Autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Gastroparesis or a delayed emptying of the stomach
  • Hiatal hernias that allow the upper stomach to move into the chest
  • Pregnancy
  • Smokers or exposed to secondhand smoke 
  • Certain medicines for high blood pressure, depression or asthma


What are the complications of GERD?

GERD can cause severe health complications if left untreated.

  • Esophageal stricture that decreases the size of your esophagus making it difficult to swallow
  • Esophagitis, an inflammation of the esophagus that causes ulcers and bleeding
  • Damaged tooth enamel
  • Laryngitis, an inflammation of your vocal cords that causes you to temporarily lose your voice 


How is GERD treated?

Diet and lifestyle modifications can help in addition to over-the-counter antacids. Consult your doctor before taking any medications. Your doctor may need to run diagnostic tests.

Try these steps to alleviate GERD symptoms. But it's still important to talk to your doctor. 

  • Alkaline foods like bananas, ginger, fennel, nuts and melons will offset stomach acid. 
  • Avoid eating big meals and foods that trigger GERD symptoms. 
  • Chew slowly and thoroughly before swallowing. 
  • Don’t lie down immediately after eating. 
  • High-fiber foods like oatmeal, brown rice, root vegetables and green vegetables will make you feel full, so you’re not tempted to overeat. 
  • Nonfat milk or low-fat yogurt acts as a temporary barrier between the stomach’s lining and its acidic contents. 
  • Warm water mixed with a small amount of lemon juice and honey may neutralize stomach acid.
  • Watery foods like watermelon, cucumber, lettuce, broth and celery will help dilute own stomach acid.

Call (866) MY-LI-DOC (866-695-4362) to find a Catholic Health physician near you.

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