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Heartburn may be sign of bigger problem
Health advice
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Many people who don't normally have acid ingestion or reflux experience it at Thanksgiving and during the holiday season. Why? Because people want to try as many seasonal treats as possible and that loaded Thanksgiving table offers too many delicious options. So, many of us tend to overindulge.
The No. 1 reason for holiday indigestion is filling your stomach too full, which results in stomach acid traveling back up the esophagus. But for more than 60 million Americans, this occurs at least twice a month — with many suffering on a daily basis. A major health concern, acid reflux causes both the occasional heartburn attack and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which may lead to a narrowing or ulceration of the esophagus and, in rare cases, esophageal cancer.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter does not close properly and stomach contents leak back (or reflux) into the esophagus. The lower esophageal sphincter is a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that acts like a valve between the esophagus and stomach. The esophagus carries food from the mouth to the stomach and when this valve is functioning properly, food and liquids pass into the stomach and the sphincter prevents them from coming back up into the esophagus. When the lower esophageal sphincter is weak or loose, stomach acids can back up into the esophagus, causing gastroesophageal reflux disease.
When refluxed stomach acid touches the lining of the esophagus, it causes a burning sensation in the chest or throat commonly called heartburn. Acid indigestion is when the fluid is tasted in the back of the mouth. Heartburn every now and then is common and having it occasionally does not necessarily mean you have GERD. However, heartburn that occurs more than twice a week may be GERD.
GERD affects an estimated 5-7 percent of the global population, with many afflicted often experiencing at least one episode of heartburn a day. GERD is seen in men and women of various ages and even in some children; overweight people are at greater risk although many thin people have this disease.
Persistent heartburn and pain are the most frequent symptoms of GERD but there are lots of other symptoms that can occur, including hoarseness, chronic cough, asthma, laryngitis, recurrent pneumonia, ENT infections, nocturnal choking, sleep apnea, loss of dental enamel and bad breath. Acid reflux has even been implicated in sudden infant death syndrome. Many physicians rule out acid reflux in their patients before they diagnose asthma.
A chronic disease, GERD requires treatment on a long-term basis — sometimes even after symptoms are under control. Issues of daily living and compliance with long-term use of medication often need to be addressed. Various methods to effectively treat GERD range from lifestyle changes to the use of medication or surgical procedures. It is essential for individuals who suffer persistent heartburn or other chronic and recurrent symptoms of GERD to seek an accurate diagnosis, to work with their physician and to receive the most effective treatment available.
Some people may find it necessary to keep a food journal to record heartburn episodes. This can help clarify what foods trigger discomfort and pinpoint the times of day when they're most likely to occur. With this knowledge, you can learn to avoid those foods and make lifestyle changes that reduce symptoms.
Certain foods are known to promote or worsen symptoms of acid reflux. Some, like citrus, tomato and coffee, directly irritate the esophagus lining. Overeating and going to bed within two-three hours after supper should be avoided since gastric distention promotes reflux. GERD suffers should also avoid late night snacks. Foods that may be associated with reflux include:
• citrus fruits
• chocolate
• drinks with caffeine, such as coffee
• fatty and fried foods
• garlic and onions
• mint flavorings
• spicy foods and
• tomato-based foods, like sauce, chili and pizza
A little alcohol aids in digestion, but too much alcohol confuses the stomach and delays digestion, setting the stage for reflux. Weight gain, pregnancy and smoking also have been implicated as risk factors for GERD. Reflux symptoms at night may often be reduced simply by elevating the head end of the bed or by using a wedge pillow under the upper body. Other lifestyle changes include:
• If you smoke, stop.
• Lose weight if needed.
• Eat small meals, rather than one large meal at night.
• Wear loose-fitting clothes.
• Avoid lying down for three hours after a meal.
• Sleep on your left side to put your stomach in a better position to avoid reflux.
• Drink more water to dilute stomach acid.
• Keep gum at hand. Chewing fruity or bubblegum flavors (not mint) stimulates the production of saliva, which both dilutes stomach acid and keeps things flowing in the right direction.
In addition to changes in lifestyle, GERD may be treated with acid suppression medications, but if you suspect you may have GERD, see your healthcare provider. Do not treat yourself.
Researchers have discovered a gene that helps control the secretion of acid in the stomach. This information will aid scientists in creating more efficient treatment options for conditions like acid reflux or peptic ulcers.

Ratcliffe is the Liberty County Health Department public information officer.

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