Acid reflux, which is also commonly known as heartburn, or acid indigestion, occurs when some of the acid content in your stomach flows upward into esophagus — causing feelings of burning and chest pain. If you experience acid reflux more frequently than twice per week, you may be suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
Normally, a ring of muscle at the entrance of your stomach known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) prevents any stomach acid from entering your esophagus by acting as a valve that closes the entrance to your stomach. But when your health is compromised by one or more risk factors, sometimes your LES will fail to close or open up when it shouldn’t — often resulting in acid reflux.
Common causes of acid reflux
One of the top leading causes of acid reflux is a stomach abnormality known as a hiatal hernia. A hiatal hernia will occur when the upper portion of your stomach and your LES reposition themselves above your diaphragm, which normally helps keep acid in your stomach. A hiatal hernia will often cause acid to move up into your esophagus and result in acid reflux.
Other common acid reflux risk factors include:
Consuming foods that trigger acid reflux
Consuming large, heavy meals then bending over or lying down
Taking medications such as muscle relaxers, aspirin, ibuprofen, or blood pressure medications
Smoking has the ability to damage and impair mucus membranes, muscle reflexes in your throat, LES muscle function, and can reduce salivation — all of which can trigger and worsen acid reflux.
Foods and beverages that commonly trigger acid reflux are soda, alcohol, citrus fruits, chocolate, caffeinated drinks, fried foods, foods made with tomatoes (pasta sauce, pizza, salsa), foods with high table salt content, onions, garlic, peppermint, and spicy foods.
Individuals with low dietary fiber intake and those who don’t exercise frequently are also at high risk for acid reflux disease.
Symptoms of acid reflux
The number one leading symptom of acid reflux is heartburn. Heartburn occurs in the esophagus just behind your breastbone, and feels like a burning sensation that can worsen when bending over or lying down. The pain felt from heartburn can move up toward your neck and throat and result in a bitter, sour taste, also known as regurgitation. Heartburn can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, and can become more intense after eating food.
Other common symptoms of acid reflux disease include:
Unexplained weight loss
Bloody or black stools
Dysphagia (sensation of food being stuck in your throat)
Dry cough or wheezing
Chronic sore throat or hoarseness
Pain or difficulty with swallowing
Diagnosing acid reflux disease
Talk to your doctor immediately if you are experiencing acid reflux more than twice per week, and if symptoms persist even after taking medications to treat the condition. In some cases, your doctor may recommend that you see a specialist in gut medicine, known as a gastroenterologist. Your doctor may also perform a series of tests to determine whether you suffer from acid reflux disease or GERD, such as an endoscopy to check the health of your stomach and esophagus.
If risk factors such as smoking and obesity are causing you to experience acid reflux, you can make a series of healthy lifestyle changes to reverse your condition, such as quitting smoking, exercising regularly, and staying away from foods and beverages that cause acid reflux.
Consult with your health care provider to get more information about treating acid reflux disease and GERD. The sooner you can seek treatment, the better you can lower your risk for strictures, esophagitis, Barrett’s esophagus, and cancer — all of which are serious health conditions that could develop when acid reflux is left untreated.