Lifestyle Tips for GERD
What is GERD?
You probably already have, or very likely will experience, heartburn or acid reflux at some point in your life. This is the feeling of a kind of burning in your chest due to the acid in your stomach coming back up your throat. This minor ailment can be self-treated by over the counter (OTC) medications, such as antacids.
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However, when this reflux is happening regularly, more than twice per week, for an extended period of time, it has evolved into a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a chronic condition, characterized by the frequent reflux of acid back up into your throat. It often develops as a result of a “loosened” muscle that is usually responsible for keeping the passageway closed between the throat and stomach. This muscle is called a “sphincter” and typically relaxes to let food pass and then tightens to close. However, sometimes this sphincter can become weak and doesn’t close properly anymore, resulting in the reflux of stomach acid up the throat. This can eventually cause a lot of damage to your throat, as it can get burned by the stomach acid when exposed to it too frequently.
While acid reflux can be treated by OTC medications, since GERD is a more serious medical condition, it typically requires the advice of a healthcare provider and prescription medication. However, often before healthcare providers prescribe medication, or even in addition to medication, they ask patients to make some lifestyle changes.
Risk Factors For GERD
There are a number of risk factors that can make someone more likely to develop GERD. These include:
- Trigger foods, such as spicy or fatty foods
- Certain medications
Some of these risk factors, such as aging, cannot be avoided, and others, such as pregnancy or taking certain medications, you may not want to avoid. However, other risk factors can be changed or avoided to either prevent or even just help reduce GERD symptoms.
How Can Food Cause GERD?
The easiest way to reduce symptoms of GERD is to change your eating habits. Three of the main risk factors involve food and eating, so altering this can greatly change the frequency and intensity of GERD exacerbations.
Avoid eating food late at night. This is less about the time of day, and more about physical behaviour late at night. The main issue is that this gets too close to when you go to bed. When you are standing or sitting upright, gravity is helping to push food down your throat and through your digestive system. While reflux absolutely can and does occur when you are standing, it’s more difficult for the acid to reflux against gravity. If you lay down, this takes away the added pressure from gravity, and food/stomach acid can much more easily come back up the throat. If you do eat late, it can help to remain upright for at least 30 minutes or as long as possible before laying down for bed. Another option is to alter which foods you are eating as a late-night snack, because this can also have an impact.
Avoid trigger foods. The most common foods that lead to reflux are very fatty, acidic and/or spicy foods. Avoiding or even just limiting your intake of these kinds of foods can greatly reduce the frequency you are experiencing reflux. This factor varies slightly person-to-person based on typical eating habits, so it is also an option to try taking note of which foods trigger your reflux, and subsequently avoid those foods when possible. You can also work to reduce the physical amount of those foods you are consuming.
Eating too much food can also caused GERD symptoms. Many people complain about heartburn or reflux after a big heavy meal such as thanksgiving dinner. This is, in part, due to the amount of food that is typically consumed on these occasions. Large meals “fill up” your stomach, typically your stomach is able to hold quite a large amount of food. However, if you’re already prone to reflux and the sphincter that usually keeps the food down in the stomach has been weakened, the added pressure of a huge meal can lead to reflux of the food back up your throat.
Behavioural Modifications for GERD
There are also additional lifestyle choices that can alter the frequency of GERD symptoms. The biggest behavioural factor is smoking. This is because smoking causes a decrease in the pressure of the sphincter. The coughing that is associated with smoking even further leads to reflux as the power of a cough easily overpowers the pressure of a weak sphincter. It’s unclear if stopping smoking will reverse this decrease in pressure, but it is clear that stopping will prevent further damage, so it’s highly recommended to stop smoking.
Drinking alcohol is also a likely trigger for GERD. There are a number of potential factors leading to this association, but most are once again related to the sphincter pressure. The alcohol may directly irritate the throat and stomach, also likely damaging the sphincter and leading to dysfunction there, thus causing reflux. This association is also even greater with an increased amount and frequency of alcohol consumed.
Physical Modifications for GERD
The final, and perhaps most important, modifiable risk factors are physical. This is because obesity is one of the most significant risk factors for developing GERD. Getting to a healthy weight has a major impact on your overall health and also specifically on reflux. This is because this excess weight increases the pressure on your body and almost “squeezes” the acid up out of your stomach and into your throat. There are many reasons why obesity has negative consequences for your health, but GERD and the resulting possible damage to your throat are very clear dangers.
Even just increasing your physical activity can reduce GERD symptoms. This is because physical activity has a major impact on the health of your digestive system. The best exercises for reducing GERD symptoms are low impact activities that keep you as upright as possible.
GERD is a chronic condition, and while medications are available to prevent symptoms, reducing your risk factors is the best method to try to reverse and possibly “fix” the condition.
- e-CPS: The Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties: The Canadian Drug Reference for Health Professionals (https://www-e-therapeutics-ca). Accessed 2022-07-11.
- Kahrilas, P., & Gupta, R. (1990). Mechanisms of acid reflux associated with cigarette smoking. Gut, 31(1), 4-10. doi: 10.1136/gut.31.1.4
- Chen, S., Wang, J., & Li, Y. (2010). Is alcohol consumption associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease?. Journal Of Zhejiang University SCIENCE B, 11(6), 423-428. doi: 10.1631/jzus.b1000013