Burning in the chest or throat, a sour or bitter taste, regurgitation of food and trouble swallowing – these are all symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD, a common condition estimated to affect 10 to 20% of Americans, is a severe form of acid reflux that occurs when stomach contents rise up into the esophagus. For many people, this is simply unpleasant, but over time it may become dangerous.
As stomach acid eats away at the lining of the esophagus, cells in the esophagus can become damaged and morph into the types of cells more commonly seen in the intestine (a condition called Barrett’s esophagus). These changes are seen in about 5 to 10% of people with GERD and significantly raise the risk of esophageal cancer. Julia asked us about how to naturally minimize her risk on Twitter:
The risk of esophageal cancer for someone with Barrett’s esophagus is about 0.5% per year. While this might not sound like a lot at first, over many years the risk can be considerable. That’s why it’s especially important for people with Barrett’s to minimize acid reflux.
Usually this calls for the use of a proton-pump inhibitor (PPI), which reduces production of stomach acid and is thought to limit the damage that can lead to cancer. However, PPI use has not been directly proven to prevent esophageal cancer development and may have other side effects, so patients should always talk with their doctors about the pros and cons of taking PPIs.
There are many natural things people can try in order to minimize acid reflux:
Melatonin – Melatonin, a hormone that helps to control our body clock, has been shown in studies to help protect the lining of the stomach and to increase the pressure of the lower esophageal sphincter, which helps lock acid out of the esophagus. Try 3 mg of melatonin two hours before bedtime for up to four weeks.
Baking soda – Baking soda is basic and helps to quickly but temporarily neutralize stomach acid. Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon in half a cup of water and drink it down for fast relief.
Elevate your bed – Acid reflux can worsen at night when you’re lying down for long periods of time. Try elevating the head of your bed 6 to 8 inches by placing something sturdy (like bricks) underneath it. Just sleeping on extra pillows won’t give you the right angle and could make the problem worse.
Licorice – Licorice root (not the candy) has been used to soothe stomach problems for thousands of years. It is thought to decrease gastric acid secretion and increase the production of protective mucous in the digestive tract. Licorice candy won’t work, as most of it is flavored with anise, but look for deglycyrrhizinated (DGL) licorice tablets and chew 1-2 tablets 20 minutes before a big meal. Licorice may not be safe in large doses, but the DGL form is believed to be safer. Always talk to your doctor before starting a new supplement or remedy.
Don’t eat three hours before bed – Since it takes food several hours to clear the stomach, eating within three hours of bedtime increases risk of reflux symptoms sevenfold. Eating smaller, more frequent meals rather than large meals far apart may also help.
Avoid triggers – Foods that may worsen acid reflux include spicy food, alcohol, chocolate, peppermint, tomatoes, garlic and citrus foods. Eating fewer carbs may also help, as will quitting smoking.
Sleep on your left side – Studies suggest sleeping on your right or on your stomach may worsen reflux symptoms.
Lose weight – Rates of acid reflux have risen alongside obesity rates and symptoms can improve significantly after weight loss. In the meantime, make sure your pants and belts aren’t too tight – the extra pressure can worsen heartburn.
Chew gum – Chewing gum stimulates saliva, which helps to neutralize acid. Pick the sugar-free kind to protect your teeth.
These remedies are often helpful for reducing symptoms of acid reflux, but stomach acid can still damage your esophagus even if you don’t have symptoms. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the testing, screening and treatment plans best-suited to you.