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The American College of Gastroenterology reports that more than 15 million Americans experience heartburn symptoms every single day. In the United States alone, pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medications, promising to relieve symptoms of digestive disorders, generate over $53 million dollars in annual sales. You can’t pick up a magazine, watch television, or surf the Internet without being bombard by a slick and colorful media blitz of advertisements promoting a celebrity country comedian, sports hero, or “friendly fireman’s” preferred brand of acid reflux relief.
Because acid reflux is such a common concern, many people do not know or pay attention to just how serious a health problem it may be or can become. When we experience the painful burning sensation of heartburn, it is a signal that acid from our stomach is flowing backward into our lower esophagus. Known as acid reflux, (GERD, or gastro-esophageal reflux disease, is the medical term for acid reflux.) this backflow of acid into your esophagus can make you extremely uncomfortable after eating, erode tooth enamel, and can keep you awake at night.
"Stomach acid can eat away at the enamel on your teeth," says Dr. Ken Sutherland, DDS, a Delta Dental senior dentist consultant. "Your dentist may be the first to notice symptoms of the disease when he or she detects enamel loss." If detected, your dentist may refer you to a specialist, who may prescribe treatment or recommend lifestyle changes specifically for the treatment of GERD, such as avoiding acidic foods.”
The esophagus is responsible for pushing food into the stomach when we swallow. This action is accomplished by the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a valve positioned at the stomach entrance that determines whether food can or cannot pass. Only open during swallowing and closed the rest of the time, the LES prevents stomach acids from back flowing into the esophagus. With acid reflux, the LES fails to remain closed, thus allowing stomach acid to creep upward causing burning, irritation, erosion, and pain. The fluid may be tasted in the back of the mouth. When this happens it is known as acid indigestion.
In healthy persons, occasional heartburn and acid indigestion are a common occurrence and do not necessarily mean one that has acid reflux disease or GERD. However, heartburn that occurs more than once a week is typically considered GERD and can lead to serious health concerns.
Causes Of Acid Reflux
Stomach acid is both necessary and normal with the body maintaining a delicate balance of producing adequate stomach acid without the stomach digesting itself.
The cause of your heartburn may be bad dietary choices. Poor eating habits may be the cause of occasional heartburn. As an example, if you binge on spicy pepperoni pizza, or eat a burger high in fat, overindulge in alcohol, or consume spicy tomato products, citrus juices, or chocolate, you may experience heartburn. These are all common triggers, even in healthy people. Smokers and the obese also tend to experience more heartburn than those who abstain from tobacco products or persons who maintain a healthy weight.
If you find yourself reaching for an antacid tablet daily and suffer from frequent heartburn and acid reflux, or exhibit other complications or symptoms of acid reflux, there is normally a physical cause. If you experience chronic heartburn, burping, bloating, gas, or nausea after eating, it is more than likely you have a stomach acid issue.
“If everything is working normally in your body, then the stomach acid should never reflux up into the esophagus. This is because there is a muscular valve between the stomach and esophagus. This valve is known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Normally food and drinks are only meant to pass downwards from the esophagus (gullet) into the stomach, and these foods and drinks are not meant to pass upwards into the lower esophagus. If you have acid reflux disease, then food and liquids spill up into the lower esophagus, because the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes too often. This is a problem because the stomach lining produces acid and the stomach contents are therefore acidic and irritant to the lining of the esophagus.”
One of the most common causes of acid reflux disease is an abnormality in the stomach known as a hiatal hernia. A hiatal hernia occurs when the upper portion of the stomach and LES move upward above the diaphragm, the muscle that separates the stomach from the chest. When all things are normal, the diaphragm helps keep acid in the stomach. However, if you have a hiatal hernia, acidly can move upward into your esophagus causing heartburn, coughing, pain, and other uncomfortable symptoms of acid reflux disease.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), proven by medical research to be associated with an increased risk of acid reflux and acid reflux complications such as esophageal strictures and Barrett’s esophagus are primary contributing causes of ulcers in the stomach. Did you know that if you take these drugs, you increase your risk of acid reflux by a factor of 2? It is believed that NSAIDS encourage acid reflux by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter muscle, thus allowing contents of the stomach to more readily reflux into the esophagus.
Age can be a contributing factor in acid reflux. As the stomach ages, just like every other part of the body, things change. Age can cause a loss of digestive enzymes, lower stomach acid, acid reflux, and impaired bowel mobility; all precursors of dysbiosis. Dysbiosis, also known as dysbacteriosis, is a microbial imbalance of the digestive tract associated with chronic fatigue syndrome, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, colitis, and cancer.
If you suffer from chronic heartburn, pay attention to your symptoms. If heartburn is present more than once a week, its time to see your doctor. Don’t compromise your health from ignorance or misinformation. Although antacids and other heartburn relief medications and modalities may be helpful in relieving symptoms, they do not address underlying medical issues. If not diagnosed and properly treated, chronic acid reflux can lead to painful and life-threatening medical complications.