How Diet Helps with Acid Reflux - dummies

By Patricia Raymond, Michelle Beaver

Before you figure out which foods trigger your acid reflux, it’s important to have a general understanding of the overall digestive process. And more specifically, where it goes wrong for people who suffer from acid bound north.

The digestion process

Digestion begins as soon as you take your first bite. When you chew, your teeth break down the food into smaller chunks that will be easier for your body to digest. Saliva also plays a critical role; the chemicals in it start to break down carbohydrates. You swallow, and the food travels down your esophagus.

The esophagus is ground zero for acid reflux. It’s a long muscular tube that extends from your throat to your stomach.

The esophagus uses a series of muscular contractions, known as peristalsis, to push food down into the stomach. Right before the food hits your stomach, it encounters the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which is a group of muscles that act as a valve. The LES allows food to pass into the stomach but blocks the stomach’s contents from creeping back into the esophagus.

[Credit: Illustration by Kathryn Born]
Credit: Illustration by Kathryn Born

This little valve plays a critical role. If it functions correctly, it prevents stomach acid, enzymes, and food particles from entering the esophagus. In other words, if the LES is doing its job, no reflux.

The next step in the digestive process occurs in the stomach. The stomach is lined by strong muscular walls that expand as food enters. The more you eat, the more the stomach must expand. When the stomach expands, it puts more pressure on the LES. This increased pressure can overcome the LES. You know what that means.

The stomach is also responsible for grinding the food down until it’s the correct consistency to pass farther down the digestive tract. The stomach works like a tumbler, pulverizing the food down to sand-sized chyme.

From there, the food passes through other organs of the digestive system. Each organ plays its part, further breaking down the food, sucking out the nutrients, and converting the rest into waste.

When digestion goes bad

When the digestive system malfunctions, the results can range from irritating to traumatic. One surprisingly common problem is failing to sufficiently chew food. Just because you can swallow that piece of chicken without chewing, doesn’t mean you should. When you don’t chew enough, you make it harder on your esophagus and stomach.

If the food is too big and chunky, it may make reflux more painful if you already have it. And if you’ve developed a narrowing, or stricture, of the esophagus, the chunks may get caught on their journey to the stomach.

Failing to fully chew your food also means your stomach has to work harder and take longer to break food down. This digestive distress can make it easier for reflux to rear its ugly head.

The most common complaint associated with acid reflux is heartburn. Heartburn is the result of stomach enzymes and acid getting into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest. The pain can be so severe that some people mistake it for a heart attack, especially those who aren’t used to heartburn. More consequences: excessive burping and a sour or bitter taste in the mouth.

The stomach produces hydrochloric acid and other powerful enzymes to break down the stomach’s contents. To prevent the acid from eating away at your stomach lining, your stomach is coated in a thick layer of mucus.

If your body produces too much stomach acid, you can face problems like acid reflux or ulcers, but if it produces too little acid you can experience a buildup of small intestinal bacteria, have a greater susceptibility for food poisoning, or have difficulty in absorbing calcium, iron, magnesium, or vitamin B12.