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The symptoms can be abject misery: searing abdominal pain, debilitating stomach cramps, an excruciating, rising burn, acid-filled hiccups, tightened throat, constant sleep disturbance, and even the rare but terrifying bouts of choking from nighttime acid inhalation. I'm talking of course about acid reflux or GERD as it's commonly called these days. I personally suffered from occasional bouts of GERD and experienced all the symptoms above for years during and even after my endurance days. (It wasn’t until I gave up grains that my GERD completely disappeared.) Maybe you've had it. Maybe you know someone who's had it. GERD, by the way, isn't your run-of-the-mill occasional heartburn (which isn't much fun either) but a chronic pattern of heartburn in which you experience symptoms at least a few times a week. I get emails about it all the time, and it's little wonder. Statistics suggest that 25-30% of American adults experience GERD related heartburn multiple times a week (PDF). Of all the pharmaceutical categories, proton pump inhibitors (a predominant prescription for GERD) have ranked consistently in the top twenty for years. And that doesn't even take into account the old-fashioned antacids like Tums and Rolaids that people pop like candy. What, for the love, is going on here? It used to be heartburn was generally confined to women in their last months of pregnancy or to the annual Thanksgiving overindulgence. It certainly wasn't a chronic condition plaguing a large percentage of the population. I sense a familiar pattern here, no?
What is GERD anyway? What causes — or at least contributes to it? How do everyday lifestyle choices influence the condition, and what measures — beyond the CW pharmaceutical schtick (e.g. the happy, ubiquitous u201Cpurple pillu201D) — can we employ in treating, let alone curing the condition. (While the establishment might be content with taming the reflux beast, most folks I know who have GERD would rather beat it to death with a stick.)
First off: the what. The standard explanation for GERD goes like this. When someone suffers from a bout of heartburn, acid in the stomach essentially rises into the esophagus following a spontaneous lapse of the lower esophageal sphincter. Although the stomach lining can inherently withstand the caustic digestive acid, the esophagus has no such protection. The result of the chemical invasion is the characteristic pain and cramping those with reflux experience. Over time, the esophagus can build up scar tissue. In more serious cases, the scarring can narrow the passageway, so to speak, and make swallowing more difficult and painful. Worse than that, prolonged exposure to digestive acid can induce changes in the cells of the esophagus themselves, which can — in relatively rare but increasing instances — result in esophageal cancer, one of the deadliest forms of cancer.
As for the why, the medical community doesn't point to a specific cause, but the conventional pharmaceutical treatments address u201Cexcessiveu201D production of stomach acid. (Yes, do the double take.) The most common drugs used for GERD are H2 blockers and the aforementioned proton pump inhibitors, which block the stomach's production of acid (just at differing points of the signaling-production-release process). The old style antacids neutralize stomach acid that's already there. The irony of treating people with GERD by raising the pH of their gastric juices (making it less acidic) is that food doesn’t digest as well, which can be a contributing factor to GERD. Decreasing the acidity of your stomach acid may provide short term relief, but it’s not a long term solution.
Prescription medication usually accompanies practical suggestions like eating small meals, limiting alcohol and avoiding nicotine (which relax the lower esophageal sphincter) and raising the head of your bed to discourage acid from rising too far up your esophagus at night and disrupting sleep. (On a personal note, some of my worst bouts with GERD occurred in the reclined position of an airline seat, so that final bit of advice never worked for me.) GERD sufferers are also advised to steer clear of common u201Ctriggeru201D foods like chocolate, alcohol, mint, citrus, tomatoes, onions, and spicy dishes, and (drum roll, please) fatty foods because they contribute to what's known as slow stomach emptying, which can make GERD symptoms feel worse.
All this leaves GERD sufferers with few answers and no real solutions unless you count a lifelong pharmaceutical dependency as a solution. This doesn't even take into account the countless people who take acid reflux medications who actually report a worsening of their symptoms with medication. The response? A higher dose prescription. Never mind that research connects long-term use of these drugs with a higher risk for serious infection and fractures. Keep in mind that the stomach acid's job is to both digest for absorption of key nutrients and to kill off pathogens.
I know a number of people who've felt utterly wrecked by their long-term battles with GERD, many MDA readers included. I've heard stories from folks (on medication, yes) who said they would get a bad bout of GERD and be in agony for days unable to eat anything, unable to sleep or even find a comfortable position. When they were finally able to lick the condition, they felt they finally got their lives back.
So, if it's not excess stomach acid, what the heck is it then? Let me put it this way. It's not about excess stomach acid (unless there's some other kind of underlying and unusual medical problem). The acid itself is a red herring. It's ultimately the weakened esophageal sphincter itself. While some things like alcohol and nicotine genuinely relax the sphincter, most of the other maligned food categories are simply irritants to an already irritated stomach and esophagus.
Am I going to tell you going low carb is the answer? Partly, yes. There's been scant research done in this area (as is generally the case with low carb eating). One small study highlights the effectiveness of eating low carb, but the connection has been noted for years in the low-carb community (check out some of the reader success stories) — but without clear rationale. Sure, obesity is a clear culprit, and a low-carb diet will undoubtedly address that condition. Yes, there's the potent anti-inflammatory power of a low-carb diet. We've always known there's more to the story, however.