Acid reflux is becoming a huge global issue. It’s been on the rise for decades, and it’s worse than ever before, particularly in the US. It’s estimated that over 20% to 30% of Americans suffer from acid reflux at least once weekly, according to the National Digestive Disease Information Clearinghouse. Hospitalization from acid reflux and GERD also increased in 2015 to 3,141,965 people. GERD diagnoses for infants continue to rise, increasing 42% for infants and 84% for children ages 2-17 in 2015, according to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project.
Reflux is caused by acid splashing back up into the esophagus, usually after a meal. It can be caused by a number of things, but generally chronic reflux is seen in people who have a weakened lower esophageal sphincter. When the LES is weak it isn’t able to close properly, which allows stomach acid to splash back up into the esophagus and results in reflux. The symptoms of reflux are heartburn, sour taste in the mouth and throat, vomiting, chronic cough, and breathing difficulty, so you can see why people don’t exactly love it.
Doctors are still not sure exactly what causes the lower esophageal sphincter to weaken, or why rates of reflux are so high in the United States compared to other countries. In some people it may be genetic, and in many cases there are a number of other lifestyle factors that may contribute. Overeating, being overweight, pregnancy, wearing tight clothing, and smoking are just a few. They’ve got a few more suspicions about what might be contributing to the rise of reflux in the US.
Causes and Factors That Increase the Risk of Reflux and GERD
Many doctors believe excessive weight is a big contributor to reflux. There is a rise in overweight children and adults in the US. Excessive weight puts pressure on the stomach and often puts on fat around the organs in the body. When you eat fat this slows down the digestive process, leaving more food to cause reflux.
Another culprit? Food. We have a large selection of food in the supermarkets and restaurants in the United States, and many of these foods increase stomach acid, which causes reflux. Beverages like coffee, tea, and soda have large amounts of caffeine that is acidic. Coffee and other caffeinated beverages also interfere with the natural ability of the esophagus to move food into the stomach, backing things up and potentially causing heartburn or reflux. Fatty foods also slow down the passage of food from the stomach into the intestines. In fact, you will find reflux to be worse after large meals.
In addition to food, other American lifestyle habits can cause reflux. Smoking often leads to belching and swallowing air, which worsens the symptoms of reflux and GERD. Too much alcohol (yes, there is such a thing!) produces excessive stomach acid and affects how the esophagus functions. Pregnancy, with all those crazy hormonal changes, drastically increases the symptoms of GERD.
So What Can We Do?
One of the best places to start is the kitchen. Portions in the US are significantly larger than in other countries, and eating three large meals a day isn't necessarily the best approach. To avoid post-meal reflux, try to eat several small meals a day. Meals should be low-fat, because fat slows down the digestion of food. Dr. Ronnie Fass, a member on the Advisory Board for the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, says many people believe heartburn is part of the eating experience, which is frankly just incorrect. It’s not normal to experience heartburn after you eat. Heartburn is a sign that something is very wrong with your digestive process, and can be an indicator of GERD.
Overeating, obesity, and a poor diet are some of the main causes of GERD in the United States. Many of the processed foods we eat contain citric acid and ascorbic acid used to preserve food. When we eat these foods, we expose our body to more acid. Look at labels and cut down on canned and processed food with these two ingredients.
Lifestyle changes, diet, and occasional medication can go a long way towards eliminating the frequency and reducing the symptoms of situational reflux. Patients who are experiencing chronic reflux, though (2-3 times a week), are likely suffering from GERD and may require more extensive treatment options like anti-reflux surgery in order to effectively achieve long-term symptom relief. If you notice that you're frequently dealing with heartburn or other reflux symptoms, take the time to sit down with a reflux specialist and talk about your options. GERD is an incredibly treatable disorder, and the experts here at Tampa Bay Reflux Center are here to walk you through the whole process.