Acid Reflux Diet & Cookbook For Dummies
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There are many opinions out there about how to treat acid reflux. It can get confusing! Particularly confusing is the fact that what triggers one person's reflux may not trigger yours. This Cheat Sheet breaks down the bulk of what you need to know so you can reduce your reflux without getting a headache.

What causes acid reflux?

Acid reflux is the result of a malfunctioning lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is a small ring of muscles between the esophagus and stomach. When functioning correctly, it opens to allow food and fluid to pass down into the stomach, and then closes promptly. Acid is not supposed to flow upward — and when it does, that’s reflux.

Reflux can also be contributed to by having a hiatal hernia. There is some evidence that there is a genetic component to reflux. Habits, however, are the main culprit. Being overweight, eating meals that are too large, and eating and drinking the wrong foods can all lead to reflux. Smoking is also a trigger.

The following consumables can lead to reflux:

  • Carbonated beverages

  • Citrus fruits

  • Fatty or fried foods

  • Spicy food

In short, diet and lifestyle are usually the factors behind reflux. Change them, and you’ll likely change your symptoms.

How to prevent and treat acid reflux

The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” certainly applies to acid reflux. In other words, it’s better to prevent acid reflux than to treat it.

When you get acid reflux, if you keep doing whatever gave you the ailment, you’ll keep getting the ailment, and eventually there will be consequences beyond discomfort and pain. Eventually, your throat will become so sensitive that reflux bouts will hurt even more. You could develop anything from a chronic sore throat and cough, to a precancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus. So, prevent, prevent, prevent.

The best way to prevent acid reflux is with diet and a few lifestyle tips:

  • Avoid eating large meals.

  • Avoid eating within two hours of lying down.

  • Avoid drinking alcohol often, and avoid it in large quantities. A few drinks a week is fine, but exceed that and you may be risking reflux.

  • Avoid drinking large amounts of coffee. A cup a day should be fine; but if even that small amount gives you trouble, cut back.

  • Lose excess weight. Being too heavy puts pressure on the bottom part of your esophagus and makes you much more likely to get reflux.

  • Avoid or reduce the following foods and drinks:

    • Carbonated beverages

    • Chili peppers

    • Chocolate

    • Citrus

    • Fried foods

    • Hot spices, such as cayenne

    • Mint

    • Raw garlic

    • Raw onion

    • Red meat

    • Tomato

    • Excess fat (if it’s super greasy, avoid it, or only eat a little)

If none of these changes prevents reflux, you should still follow a reflux reduction diet, but you’ll also need to visit your doctor. Your doctor may recommend antacids, prescription medications, or surgery.

The differences between acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD

The terms acid reflux, heartburn, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference among these three digestive disorders:

  • Acid reflux is the reason you have heartburn. It is the underlying condition that allows stomach acid to escape into the esophagus.

    Acid reflux is not necessarily a chronic condition. Any time your LES malfunctions, you’re experiencing reflux. So, even if you get reflux only once a year, you’re still considered to have acid reflux.

  • Heartburn is a symptom and not a disease or condition. Heartburn is one of the most common symptoms of acid reflux and GERD. It’s a burning sensation in the chest that results from the esophagus being exposed to stomach acid.

  • GERD is a chronic condition. Most doctors will diagnose you with GERD if you experience heartburn or other reflux symptoms two or more times a week. Acid reflux may not require treatment, but GERD usually will.

Is acid reflux dangerous?

Acid reflux is dangerous because it’s linked with several serious, life-threatening medical conditions. One of the more serious conditions associated with reflux is esophageal stricture ― a narrowing of the esophagus. This condition can make it difficult to swallow and may require surgery.

Even more serious is Barretts esophagus, a mutation of the cells that line the esophagus. Barrett’s can be a precursor to esophageal cancer. Speaking of esophageal cancer, that’s another potential (though rare) consequence of long-term, serious reflux.

Reflux can lead to inflammation of the esophagus, and chronic, painful coughing and hoarseness. To get rid of these symptoms, you may start popping antacids. An occasional antacid isn’t a problem, but becoming reliant on them is. The chemicals in some antacids can lead to fatigue, loss of appetite, weakness, diarrhea, muscle pain, and swelling.

Another illness that reflux can cause? Aspiration pneumonia — an inflammation of the lungs and bronchial tubes from inhaling gastric contents into the lungs. Anyone can get this condition, but people with reflux are more likely to develop it.

Symptoms of aspiration pneumonia include:

  • Blue color to the skin

  • Chest pain

  • Coughing

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Excessive sweating

  • Fatigue

  • Shortness of breath

  • Wheezing

See a doctor immediately if you notice any of these symptoms.

If you have reflux only a few times a year, the worst you’ll suffer will be discomfort and maybe a poor night of rest. But if you get reflux much more often than that, you should see a doctor about it.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Patricia Raymond, MD, FACG, is one of the most respected voices in patient education on digestive health, including acid reflux. Michelle Beaver has served as editor-in-chief or associate editor for magazines that serve surgeons, endoscopic nurses, nephrologists, and primary-care physicians.

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