Managing a Common Disease
by Sreeja V., Jan 23 2020
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A horrible burning sensation along your windpipe. A bitter acidic aftertaste at the back of your throat. A discomfort in the abdomen. At times, a few hours post-meal during the day or sometimes, a wake up call at night. It’s difficult to figure out what is burning. Is it your heart or your gut? Acid reflux, an irritable but seemingly minor problem, affects the day-to-day lives of people around the world, disrupting sleep patterns and food habits, making them resort to tons of over-the-counter medication, and even causing depression due to the inability to find a solid cure. Read on to learn how our storytellers found solutions to manage and cure acid reflux and GERD.
What Causes the Burning?
Technically, acid reflux, also referred to as Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), occurs when digestive acid from the stomach flows back into the esophagus, towards the throat1. This causes irritation in the lining of the esophagus leading to heartburn. When GER occurs more than twice a week for weeks together, it becomes Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), a common disease with a prevalence as high as 10%-20% in the western world2. Over 20 percent of the population in the US is affected by GERD3. The factors that are likely to cause GER are several: pregnancy, obesity, spicy food, smoking, or certain types of medication such as painkillers, antihistamines, and drugs for asthma or hypertension. It could also be caused by hiatal hernia. The esophageal sphincter is a circular band of muscle that functions as a barrier between the stomach and the esophagus. It relaxes to let food pass into the stomach through the food pipe and then closes immediately after. Hiatal hernia causes the stomach to move up into the chest, lowering pressure on the esophageal sphincter, which weakens it, resulting in stomach acid flowing back into the esophagus4. The key challenge in resolving the problem of acid reflux is to identify what exactly is triggering it.
More Than What Meets the Eye
She began waking up night after night with a horrible feeling, a burning in the back of her throat and an intermittent cough. For our storyteller, what was first diagnosed as acid reflux, soon turned into GERD. Her doctor prescribed her a prescription drug, Prevacid, an expensive option for her at the time. Though the drug reduced the reflux from nightly to twice a week, overall, she didn’t feel any better. She didn’t know what could be triggering the problem and felt something was wrong with her. After her divorce, she could no longer afford the medication and was desperate to find an alternative remedy.
As she searched for solutions, her parents moved to a retirement facility after her mother, who had dementia, required medical care. Shortly after the move, her father began having similar digestive issues. He was gaining weight even though he hadn’t made any changes to his diet, except that he was now eating at either the cafeteria or the facility's dining room. He consulted the dietician and she felt that he could be suffering from celiac disease, an allergy to wheat products. This was highly possible as even the ice cream served at the facility had flour in it, so he was eating more flour than he ever had before. A visit to the doctor and a few tests later, the diagnosis was confirmed. He worked with the dietician on a diet plan and dropped everything that had flour in it. Soon enough he lost weight and the GERD and acid reflux vanished.
She told her doctor about her father’s diagnosis and he told her to go off of wheat immediately. She did and moved to the Atkins diet, completely cutting out carbs, processed food, and anything “white”—sugar, flour, and potatoes. Within a week, she started losing weight, the GERD stopped, and she began leading a more comfortable life. She feels the decision to give up pasta, bread, and processed food is a small price to pay for a healthy life.
Your Kitchen May Hold the Key
To many others, simple home-based techniques have helped manage the terrible effects brought on by GERD. For our 57-year-old storyteller from California, it was apple cider vinegar that proved to be an incredible remedy. He suffered from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), had undergone a gallbladder removal, and also had a condition called Barrett's esophagus, a complicated outcome of longstanding GERD5. This condition causes the lining in the esophagus to change and become similar to the lining of the intestine. He had an upset stomach due to acidity most afternoons and felt this was due to the lining of his stomach being affected. He decided to try apple cider vinegar by taking two tablespoons mixed with water, sometimes with a squeeze of honey. The acidity would subside as soon as the concoction hit his stomach, turning the acid into alkaline. Within twenty minutes of taking it, he could feel relief.
Fennel seeds have also been found to help with acidity and have been an integral part of the cuisine and food habits of many cultures across the world. Another storyteller of Indian origin keeps them handy as an aftermint for fresh breath and to help with post-meal digestion in addition to drinking fennel tea when he can. Fennel has been used medicinally for a wide range of ailments related to digestive, endocrine, reproductive, and respiratory systems6.
Could looking closer at your food habits, or paying heed to age-old remedies from your kitchen help manage acid reflux? Through the experiences of our storytellers, the possibilities seem high and promising.
- Raul Badillo, Dawn Francis. World J Gastrointest Pharmacol Ther. 2014 Aug 6; 5(3): 105–112. Published online 2014 Aug 6. doi: 10.4292/wjgpt.v5.i3.105 PMCID: PMC4133436
-  El-Serag HB, Petersen NJ, Carter J, et al. Gastroesophageal reflux among different racial groups in the United States. Gastroenterology. 2004;126:1692–1699.
- Foeniculum vulgare Mill: A Review of Its Botany, Phytochemistry, Pharmacology, Contemporary Application, and Toxicology. Shamkant B. Badgujar, Vainav V. Patel, Atmaram H. Bandivdekar; Biomed Res Int. 2014; 2014: 842674. Published online 2014 Aug 3. doi: 10.1155/2014/842674