The digestive system is a bit like a toilet. When everything works properly, we have a tendency to take it for granted. The second that something goes haywire, however, it's impossible to ignore. And a leaky toilet is not so different from acid reflux, as both involve faulty valves. When a person experiences acid reflux, it's because a valve known as the lower esophageal sphincter releases at the wrong time. When working properly, the valve keeps the content of the stomach within the stomach, but a poorly timed release can send stomach acids back up into the esophagus, causing feelings of burning in the chest or the throat. For some people, this may be an occasional occurrence, while others may experience acid reflux almost daily.
There's only one thing that burns more than regurgitated stomach acid, though, and that's misinformation. What are some of the myths circulating about this condition?
Let's say you enjoy a large, delicious meal and then experience the unpleasant symptoms of acid reflux. You might be tempted to think that those symptoms are no big deal, just something to be tolerated. After all, what's a little heartburn when we have the good fortune to have such wonderful meals?
However, there's no reason to simply endure flare-ups of acid reflux. Acid reflux isn't caused by any one choice that a person makes, be it smoking, overeating or drinking coffee. Those are all triggers of the condition, but the actual condition is caused by that malfunctioning valve we mentioned on the previous page. Just as it's not smart to ignore the sounds made by one malfunctioning part on your car, it's unwise to ignore your body.
In most cases, acid reflux can be relieved with an over-the-counter or prescription treatment. However, about 15 percent of the people who suffer acid reflux are doing permanent damage to their esophagus [source: Jaret]. The acid can damage the esophageal lining and in some cases, lead to a precancerous condition known as Barrett's esophagus. If you suffer acid reflux or heartburn frequently, see a doctor. While not all acid reflux leads to cancer (and while it's not a prerequisite for a cancerous condition), it's better to be safe than sorry.
Drinking a glass of milk before bed is often recommended to sufferers of acid reflux. Milk can sometimes cause some short-term relief by neutralizing stomach acids, but the calcium eventually triggers the stomach to produce more acid, thus heightening the original problem.
Mint is also a common home remedy, but it also causes further gastrointestinal grief. Put away those peppermint and spearmint gums and try some licorice instead. Licorice's flavoring, anise, helps with digestion [source: Ryen Doyle]. In fact, one nutritionist who spoke with Fox News in 2008 went so far as to suggest absinthe as an alternative for patients whose acid reflux is triggered by wine; anise is one of the main ingredients in absinthe [source: Ryen Doyle].
There are several quite effective medications that help people deal with acid reflux, from over-the-counter antacids to prescription proton pump inhibitors. Once patients find something that allows them to sleep at night or enjoy decadent meals without heartburn, there's a temptation to continue to take it for years at a time. After all, if they stop taking that daily pill, the symptoms will return, right?
While there are some patients who experience acid reflux or heartburn on a daily basis, most people only have flare-ups occasionally. These people are just wasting money and putting themselves at risk for long-term side effects. The side effects include an increased risk of pneumonia, gastrointestinal infections and osteoporosis and bone fractures [source: Jaret]. While doctors stress that these drugs are safe and that the long-term side effects are worth the gamble for people with severe acid reflux, most people can get by just taking a pill when symptoms begin or before indulging in the kind of meal that typically brings on acid reflux. Talk to your doctor to figure out your best option.
Coffee gets a bad rap in the world of acid reflux sufferers. Almost all people who experience acid reflux are told to cut it out of their diets, along with other acidic beverages such as alcohol and orange juice. An entire niche market has sprung up to offer more stomach-friendly beverages; in 2006, for example, Folgers introduced Simply Smooth, aimed at those with tender tummies, while Tropicana offers a low-acid orange juice [source: Martin].
However, there is no scientific evidence linking these beverages with the onset of acid reflux. While coffee may indeed trigger acid reflux in some people, it's not a sacrifice that needs to be recommended to everyone. If coffee triggers acid reflux for you, then by all means, stop drinking it, but if coffee (or orange juice or wine) doesn't bring on any symptoms, then you can continue to enjoy it in moderation.
Acid reflux is somewhat synonymous with a bland, limited diet. That doesn't have to be the case, though. As with the beverages we discussed on the last page, there is no scientific evidence that all sufferers of acid reflux should give up on spicy, flavorful food as a preventive measure. In one study, a Stanford professor found that simply giving up on so-called trigger foods, such as spicy foods or chocolate, had no effect on acid reflux or related symptoms. The only thing that consistently worked for patients were lifestyle changes such as weight loss or sleeping with their head elevated.
Of course, if spicy kung pao or fiery salsa always leaves you with the unpleasant sensation of acid reflux, then you'll probably want to adjust your choices. Before you give up on the item altogether, though, try just eating less of it each time. And make sure you're not getting yourself all worked up with worry before dining out at a Mexican restaurant -- the stress, not the spiciness, could be the reason for the acid reflux.
HowStuffWorks looks at items that adults often swallow that they shouldn't.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Brantley, William. "Be Still, My Heartburn." Slate. Nov. 25, 2003. (June 15, 2009) http://www.slate.com/id/2090412/
- Brody, Jane E. "Personal Health." New York Times. Sept. 25, 1996. (June 15, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/1996/09/25/us/personal-health-487570.html
- Fantle Shimberg, Elaine. "Coping with Chronic Heartburn." Macmillan. 2001. (June 15, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=_2PW4_r5H4IC&printsec=frontcover&dq=coping+with+chronic+heartburn
- Griffin, R. Morgan. "The Secrets of Managing GERD and Heartburn." WebMD. Jan. 23, 2009. (June 15, 2009) http://www.webmd.com/heartburn-gerd/america-asks-9/treatment-remedies
- Jaret, Peter. "A Sigh of Relief for Heartburn Sufferers." New York Times. Nov. 8, 2007. (June 15, 2009) http://health.nytimes.com/ref/health/healthguide/esn-gerd-ess.html
- Jaret, Peter. "Heartburn Prevention Tips for Spicy Food Lovers." WebMD. Jan. 23, 2009. (June 15, 2009) http://www.webmd.com/heartburn-gerd/america-asks-9/spicy-foods
- Jaret, Peter. "Personalizing the Management of Heartburn." New York Times. (June 15, 2009) http://health.nytimes.com/ref/health/healthguide/esn-gerd-qa.html
- Maranto, Gina. "As Acid Reflux Cases Rise, Doctors Are Asking Why." New York Times. Dec. 11, 2001. (June 15, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/11/health/as-acid-reflux-cases-rise-doctors-are-asking-why.html
- Martin, Andrew. "Decaf Being Joined by De-Heartburn." New York Times. March 14, 2007. (June 15, 2009) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?sec=health&res=9C0CE6D81131F937A25750C0A9619C8B63&scp=6&sq=acid%20reflux%20myths&st=cse
- O'Neil, John. "Not So Fast: List of Reflux Culprits Grows." New York Times. Nov 16, 2004. (June 15, 2009) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A00E5DE153FF935A25752C1A9629C8B63
- Ryen Doyle, Jessica. "Spicy or Bland? 6 Acid Reflux Myths You Should Know." Fox News. Aug. 21, 2008. (June 15, 2009) http://origin2.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,408221,00.html
- Worth, Tammy. "Gut check for reflex." Los Angeles Times. Oct. 6, 2008.