Get a handle on this common health problem before the holidays
It's the season for dinners, appetizers, buffets, and desserts, but with that bounty often comes one of the most common medical afflictions in the country: GERD. This GI disease is often associated with heartburn or acid reflux, but there's more to it than indigestion.
Dr. Prashant Kedia with Methodist Health System digs into the truth behind GERD and what we can do to avoid it, especially during the food-filled holidays.
What exactly is GERD? What are the symptoms?
GERD stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as heartburn or waterbrash. Know someone who has it, or maybe you suffer from it? Not surprising, as GERD is an epidemic in America. It's the most common GI reason that we see a gastroenterologist — up to one in four people have it.
"GERD is caused by the reflux of stomach contents (especially when those contents contain high amounts of acid) back upward into the esophagus," says Dr. Kedia. "This can commonly lead to symptoms of regurgitation, heartburn, chest pain, and a sour taste in the back of the mouth."
Are there certain foods that trigger GERD?
There are definitely some foods you'll want to avoid if you suffer from GERD, such as spicy (think chicken wings and hot sauce) or fatty, fried, or greasy (pretty much the basis of the American diet) foods. Also citrus (not just lemons and limes, but also tomatoes) and caffeine (coffee and soda) may also trigger the reflux.
Is it genetic?
"GERD is generally not considered to be a genetic disease, although risk factors such as obesity may be genetically linked," says Dr. Kedia.
Can I get rid of my GERD, or am I stuck with it forever?
Good news: GERD is treatable and even potentially curable. Controlling some of the risk factors — such as smoking, poor diet, and obesity — may help get rid of its symptoms.
"Some studies have shown that patients can have complete resolution of their symptoms by losing 20-25 pounds," says Dr. Kedia.
Other potential causes of GERD include anatomic problems like a hiatal hernia, which is when the stomach slides upward toward the chest and predisposes to acid reflux. A surgical repair in those situations may actually cure GERD.
What foods are safe to eat and do not cause GERD?
That depends on you and your body; each person is unique in the foods that can trigger their acid reflux. Non-spicy, lean foods are generally a safe bet, but Dr. Kedia recommends keeping a food diary so you can figure out what triggers your symptoms.
Important holiday question: How does alcohol impact GERD?
That's unclear right now. Small amounts generally do not seem to cause a significant problem, but moderate to significant amounts may be associated with inflammation of the esophagus and stomach. Generally in patients that have severe GERD, it is a good idea to limit or eliminate alcohol.
What can I take right now to help my GERD?
Over-the-counter medications may help immediately improve the symptoms of acid reflux during a flare. Look for antacids such as Tums or Rolaids, or stronger medicines that reduce acid output such as Zantac, Pepcid, Nexium, and Prilosec.
"GERD is a very common problem and can have significant health consequences if not treated," says Dr. Kedia. "If you're having troublesome symptoms of heartburn or regurgitation, do not ignore the problem. See a gastroenterologist."