According to the The American College of Gastroenterology, over 60 million Americans experience acid reflux at least once a month, and about 15 million experience it daily, making it one of the Western's world most common digestive issues.

The condition is also known as "heartburn," despite the fact that it has nothing to do with the heart at all. Since the stomach and lower esophagus are located right below the heart, the heart only feels like the source of the pain.

Your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) usually keeps your stomach closed during digestion so that the powerful hydrochloric acid your body uses to digest food stays where it belongs. However, if the LES can't stay closed, it can allow stomach contents to shift upwards into the esophagus, leading to heartburn.

If you experience this more than twice a week, you would qualify for a diagnosis of gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, which affects about 20 to 30 percent of the population in most Western countries.

Aside from the signature burning sensation, people with GERD can also experience regurgitation, sore throat, bloating, burping, hiccups, coughing, vomiting, and nausea. Risk factors include pregnancy, obesity, certain medications, lack of exercise, and smoking.

heartburn

While a lot of the recommendations that could improve your symptoms of acid reflux are the same sort that are likely to improve your overall health, there are also a few unique diet and lifestyle changes that could help you avoid heartburn's unpleasant sensations.

Since too much pressure on or jostling of the stomach could make it harder for the LES to stay closed, you should avoid lying on your back, bending over at the waist, vigorous exercise, or wearing tight clothes too soon after a meal.

Improving your posture, avoiding large meals in favor of more frequent smaller ones, not eating too close to bed time may also improve your symptoms. Sleeping on your left side or elevating the head of your bed if you do experience frequent nighttime reflux can also help reduce heartburn symptoms by positioning the stomach below the esophagus.

As far as food choices, particularly acidic foods like citrus fruits and tomatoes can sometimes precipitate increased acid reflux symptoms, as can acidic beverages like alcohol, soda, sparkling water, coffee, and certain teas.

Other potentially reflux-causing foods, like chocolate, mint, garlic, and onions, are problematic because have a relaxing effect on the LES. Additionally, especially salty, fatty, fried, and spicy foods are difficult to digest, so they can increase your risk of acid reflux by delaying gastric emptying.

As far as what you should eat, experts recommend sticking to relatively bland high-protein and high-fiber meals that are low in fat, sugar, and fiber. Some low fat and cholesterol protein sources include salmon, trout, almonds, lean poultry, beans, egg whites, and lentils, while good veggie options include green beans, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, and cucumbers.

Good fruit choices include berries, apples, pears, avocados, melons, peaches, and bananas, while some safer starch options are oatmeal, whole grain bread, potatoes, rice, and couscous.

You can also try to manage your acid reflux with over the counter or prescription medications, but they can sometimes cause nasty side effects like diarrhea and constipation, especially if overused. If they are taken long term, acid reflux medications can also result in problems absorbing certain nutrients, like vitamin B12, iron, calcium, magnesium, folic acid, and zinc.

Some acid reflux sufferers have also found relief using herbal remedies like ginger, fennel, parsley, aloe vera, chamomile, licorice root, marshmallow root, and slippery elm. These "alternative" options are available as supplements or teas and carry few known health risks, but they tend to be backed by little formal research.

You may also experience some relief from chewing sugar-free gum, which can increase the amount of saliva you produce, causing you to swallow more and helping to send any intruding acid back down to the stomach where it belongs. Just be sure to avoid the mint flavor!

gum

Anxiety also seems to trigger GERD symptoms in some people. This sub-group can try reducing their stress levels or, in extreme cases, seeking out therapy or psychoactive medication.

You could also try to identify your individual trigger foods by keeping a log of your intake and symptoms, or researching the PH level of your food to help you weed any excess acid out of your diet. Any food with a PH of 5 or higher should be unlikely to worsen your acid reflux symptoms, while foods with a PH of under 5 should be avoided.

If you have frequent acid reflux symptoms that do not improve even after you've tried changing your diet and lifestyle, it may be worth talking to your doctor. Sometimes, this can be caused by an abnormality called a hiatal hernia, which occurs when the upper part of your stomach and your LES move above your diaphragm and may require surgery.

It's important to keep an eye on these potential complications since frequent heartburn can lead to complications a lot worse than a little after-dinner pain. Severe acid reflux can result in pneumonia if stomach fluid reaches the lungs, and inflammation in the esophagus that can cause bleeding or ulceration.

Long term acid reflux could also lead to strictures, which develop when damage caused by stomach acid leads to scar formation in the esophagus that can interfere with swallowing, or Barret's esophagus, which occurs when repeated exposure to stomach acid causes changes in esophageal cells that makes them more likely to develop into cancer cells.

The good news for any GERD sufferers currently on a diet is that getting to a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do for your symptoms. Since excess weight puts a strain on the muscles that support the LES, simply reducing that weight could go a long way towards keeping your symptoms in check.

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