Even though it’s tough living with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), there are simple changes that can help you control symptoms.
GERD occurs when stomach contents — both acid and undigested food — flow backward into the esophagus (the tube leading from the throat to the stomach) through the lower esophageal sphincter.
The sphincter is like a valve, and this problem arises when the valve doesn’t close completely.
With this backflow you get symptoms such as heartburn, regurgitation, coughing and excessive throat clearing. And GERD isn’t just unpleasant. It can also put you at risk for more serious problems, such as ulcers and esophageal cancer. But you should know that a lot of the factors that make GERD worse are at least partially under your control. In other words, there are several things you shouldn’t do if you have GERD.
Gastroenterologist Alfonso Najar, MD, walks us through the list:
1. Don’t avoid specific foods unless they cause discomfort
While some doctors may advise you to avoid acidic foods (such as citrus fruits and tomatoes), spicy foods and coffee, there’s little evidence that these foods actually increase the amount of acid flowing back into the esophagus, he says.
“These foods may cause burning sensations, but that is more often due to the overly sensitive nerves in the esophagus, not a worsening of the reflux,” Dr. Najar says.
If you can eat these foods without discomfort, go for it. There’s no need to worry that you’re making your GERD worse.
2. Don’t overeat
While specific foods don’t seem to worsen GERD, the number of calories and the amount of fat in what you’re eating does matter. Research suggests that eating meals containing more than 500 calories or 20 grams of fat may make GERD worse.
Some people find that it’s easier to stay under the limit by eating four or more smaller meals each day, Dr. Gabbard says.
3. Don’t smoke
In addition to the numerous other health problems that cigarettes cause, smoking can also worsen GERD symptoms.
Smoking reduces saliva production, increases stomach acid and irritates the esophagus — all of which can increase your discomfort if you have GERD.
4. Don’t lie down within three hours of eating
Forget that midnight snack or post-Thanksgiving dinner nap. When you lie down after you eat, the acid flows more easily back up the esophagus. Try to stay upright for at least three hours after you eat.
5. Don’t sleep flat on your back
Even if you wait the suggested three hours before lying down, you may still find that your GERD symptoms are worse at night. If so, using an incline wedge pillow can help.
6. Don’t ignore your weight
The risk and severity of GERD tend to increase for those who have higher body weights. Although the reason for this isn’t entirely clear — it could relate to increased pressure on the stomach or hormonal changes — losing a few pounds can often help relieve GERD symptoms, Dr. Gabbard says.
7. Don’t be afraid to get treatment
Many people experience occasional heartburn and don’t think much about it once it passes.
But if you’re finding that you’re afraid to leave home without your antacids or you experience heartburn so frequently that it often keeps you up at night, ask your doctor about treatments for GERD. In addition to lifestyle changes, prescription medication can help alleviate symptoms.
When you’re suffering with a medical problem, it’s always good to hear that there are at least some steps you can take to help control the condition. These tips for controlling GERD should give you the power to lessen the discomfort from your symptoms.
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