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What is GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux is a chronic digestive disease in which stomach acid, or occasionally bile, will flow back into the esophagus from the stomach. Because the esophagus does not have a protective lining like the stomach does, stomach acid can irritate and damage the esophageal tissue. Such irritation is often referred to as heartburn or acid indigestion.

This reflux, or flow back, is caused by an issue with the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which opens to allow food to pass into the stomach from the esophagus. When the LES becomes weakened or relaxes too much, it will allow stomach acid into the esophagus. Some people may experience acid reflux on occasion, but if reflux occurs weekly or starts to interfere with daily activities, this is considered GERD.

Common Symptoms

GERD is most often associated with heartburn, but other symptoms may indicate that you have GERD. Some of the most common indications of GERD are:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore throat or hoarseness
  • A sensation of a lump in the throat
  • Sour taste in the mouth
  • Dry cough
  • Regurgitation of food or liquid (acid reflux)

Depending on the frequency and the severity of these symptoms, your doctor may prescribe different treatments. Acid neutralizing and acid blocking medications may be prescribed, along with dietary changes to minimize overall acid intake.

GERD and Obesity

In a 2003 case study from Norway, researchers found that an increase in BMI (body mass index) was associated with an increased risk of GERD. A companion study from the US indicated that even modest weight gain could cause GERD or aggravate the symptoms of GERD.

While the direct links between obesity and GERD are still being explored, more recent studies have shown that losing weight through lifestyle changes may decrease the symptoms of GERD. Since hiatal hernias may also contribute to the development of GERD and are the most common in obese individuals or those who are over age 50, weight loss may further reduce the risk of GERD through the reduced risk of hiatal hernias.

Treating GERD

Modest weight loss may help reduce the symptoms of GERD. Generally, eating smaller portions more slowly may also help.

When eating, some common foods to avoid are:

  • Chocolate
  • Peppermint
  • Coffee
  • Alcohol
  • High-fat foods
  • Fried foods

Smoking, eating large meals, lying down after eating and lifting heavy objects may aggravate the symptoms of GERD and should be avoided. In the event that lifestyle changes and medications do not help, surgery may be needed.