There is no greater challenge than to enter a Big Game weekend without quintessential party foods at the ready: spicy buffalo wings, mac-and-cheese, chips-and-dip, ice cold beer, and more. Often, such indulgences lead to not only guilt, but also a bout with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) —the most-commonly diagnosed digestive disorder in the US.
Affecting around 30% of the population, GERD occurs when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus (the tube that connects your mouth and stomach), causing irritation. Most people experience this type of mild acid reflux from time to time—but if it happens at least twice a week and/or is severe, it’s considered GERD.
When you swallow, your mouth and tongue muscles close the windpipe to your lungs. This diverts the food into your esophagus. At the base of the esophagus is a ring of muscles called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).
A healthy LES pushes food down into the stomach, where acids help break it down for the next step in digestion. But with GERD, the LES relaxes and allows stomach acid to rise into the esophagus and mouth, both of which lack the anti-acid protection that the stomach lining has.
When harsh acid hits this tender, unprotected tissue, it causes a painful burning sensation.
Other symptoms of GERD include chest pain, difficulty swallowing, regurgitation, chronic cough, hoarseness, and the sensation of a lump in your throat.
Factors that Cause GERD
Along with a diet high in certain irritating foods (acidic/spicy things like citrus and tomatoes, alcohol, carbonated drinks, high-fat foods, onions, garlic, and caffeine, to name a few), there are several factors that increase risk of GERD.
One is having a hiatal hernia, which can weaken the LES. Obesity, pregnancy, gastroparesis (delayed emptying of the stomach), and connective tissue diseases (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma) also appear to increase risk.
Research has found inflammation to be another contributing factor.
In one study, 12 men who used proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) to reduce the amount of acid made by the stomach to treat their GERD, were followed. They stopped taking their PPIs for two weeks, during which time the researchers assumed the GERD would redevelop.
In 11 of the 12 patients, the researchers observed changes in the esophagus—not burns, as would be expected. Rather, they found that the refluxed stomach acid stimulated the esophagus to make cytokines, which in turn set off a cascade of inflammatory processes leading back to the disease.
The researchers stated that these findings suggest the development of GERD “may be cytokine-mediated rather than the result of chemical injury.” It’s not the acid that’s causing the problem, but the inflammatory messengers.1
Calm Your GERD Naturally
Millions of people struggle with the discomfort GERD every day, and many of them find relief using medications such as Tums, Rolaids, Nexium, Prevacid, and Prilosec. These can offer temporary relief, but they should not be taken for long stretches of time. These drugs do not treat the root causes, and their impact over time on the digestive tract as well as the microbiome can lead to bigger issues.
To reduce your risk of GERD—and to treat it if you already have it—there are several drug-free options you can try.
A recent study found that 5 diet and lifestyle factors can have a major impact on GERD, even making medication totally unnecessary.2
- Maintaining normal weight. If you’re overweight, losing even a few pounds can help, reducing LES dysfunction.
- Never smoking. Obviously, never having smoked is the best-case scenario. But if you currently smoke, do everything in your power to quit.
- Moderate-to-vigorous exercise for 30 minutes a day. This was one of the first studies to demonstrate exercise’s effect in controlling GERD. Physical activity helps with the clearance of stomach acid.
- Restricting certain beverages. The study found that to improve GERD symptoms, it’s important to limit coffee, tea, and sodas to two cups total per day. (Better yet, just avoid soda altogether.)
- Following a “prudent” diet. This basically means avoiding foods that can cause irritation. Steering clear of the wings this Big Game Sunday is a small price to pay for having a pain-free night. (You don’t have to avoid all the fun—just opt for veggies and lean proteins instead. Limit your alcohol too.)
The researchers found that following these 5 guidelines could decrease risk of experiencing GERD symptoms by 37%!
Other things you can do, above and beyond these 5 steps, include:
- Stop eating at least three hours before bedtime. Going to bed with a full stomach makes GERD more likely. (This may be difficult on a late night like Big Game Sunday but do your best to eat early during the pregame show or first quarter, then cut yourself off for the rest of the game.)
- Consider food allergy or sensitivity. Typically, foods that cause heartburn tend to be fatty, acidic, or spicy. But you may have your own unique “problem foods.” Keep track of what you eat and how you feel after eating each food. If you notice a pattern, cut that offending food out of your diet and see if your symptoms subside.
- Chew gum. It increases saliva production and lessens acid in the esophagus. (But avoid mint flavors, which can relax the LES.)
Certain supplements can help too—without the nasty side effects of acid blockers.
Digestive enzymes are the top choice for GERD relief. When you eat a meal, various enzymes help break the food into individual nutrients—fiber, fat, and protein—that your body needs. However, with age, you begin to produce fewer digestive enzymes. If you find yourself feeling bloated or uncomfortable after eating, you may very well be low on digestive enzymes.
The three most important digestive enzymes are lipase, which helps digest fat, amylase, which targets carbohydrates, and protease, for protein. There are many different digestive enzyme formulas on the market. Try a few to see which works best for you.
Betaine, hydrochloric acid & pepsin are useful as well. The truth is, your stomach needs acid in order to properly break down the foods you eat. The body produces hydrochloric acid, which in turn helps create a substance known as pepsin. Pepsin makes it easier to digest protein. But aging reduces the amount of pepsin you produce, so supplements are recommended.
Try taking one pepsin supplement with each meal. (Note: If you have stomach or duodenal ulcers, do should not take these supplements.)
In addition to improving digestion, betaine has also been shown to be important in fighting inflammation.
Finally, probiotics can be helpful as they are key to improving the gut flora and support the healthy digestive process. If you want a high-quality recommendation, try Newport Natural Health’s Microencapsulated Probiotics with FOS.
Enjoy The Game Responsibly
If you are among the nearly one-third of Americans struggling with GERD, you are likely already bracing for the pain caused by a Big Game weekend—even if the team you root for wins.
Millions will reach for OTC solutions to relieve the pain caused by GERD, but you can stay on the winning side of your digestive tract by adopting these helpful tips.
While these lifestyle changes and supplements may take a couple weeks for you to realize their full benefit, there is no doubt that, in time, they will provide the relief you and millions more are longing for, safely and naturally.
Take good care.
- Dunbar K, et al. Association of Acute Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease With Esophageal Histologic Changes. 2016 May 17;315(19):2104-12.
- Raaj S, et al. Association of Diet and Lifestyle With the Risk of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Symptoms in US Women. JAMA Intern Med. 2021 Jan 4. DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.7238
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Last Updated: February 3, 2021
Originally Published: February 3, 2021