If acid from your stomach regularly comes up into your esophagus — the long, muscular tube that connects your mouth to your stomach — you probably have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. When acid refluxes, or moves into the esophagus, it irritates the lining of the esophagus, causing heartburn. You may also notice a sour taste in your mouth or persistent throat discomfort due to acid reflux.
What Is GERD?
Reflux by itself isn’t unusual. GERD, however, develops when a person experiences frequent reflux on a regular basis. Doctors diagnose GERD when acid reflux consistently occurs two or more times a week. Untreated GERD can lead to serious complications.
“Everyone has [some degree of] reflux after a meal,” says Michael Vaezi, MD, PhD, clinical director of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology and director of the Center for Esophageal Motility Disorders at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “It’s a matter of whether you sense it and whether it becomes troublesome and bothersome enough for you to seek medical attention.”
What Causes GERD?
GERD occurs when there is a weakness or defect in the lower esophageal sphincter, a ring of muscle that acts as a valve and normally keeps the stomach’s contents from backing up into the esophagus.
According to Dr. Vaezi, it’s a misconception that GERD occurs because of increased acid production in your stomach, since generally, most people have the same amount of acid in their stomachs. Instead, GERD is triggered by overeating or some other factor that causes the stomach acid to overwhelm the valve that normally protects the esophagus. When the valve gives way, it allows acid to flow into the esophagus. Reflux symptoms tend to worsen if you lie down just after eating, since this gives the acid even more of an opportunity to backflow into the esophagus.
Obesity has also been strongly linked to GERD, Vaezi points out. “As patients gain weight, there’s a relationship between their body mass index and reflux disease,” he says. “This is probably related to the amount of [excess] pressure that’s put on the stomach.”
Other risk factors for GERD include:
Eating certain foods can also make the symptoms of GERD worse. They include:
GERD: Symptoms and Treatment
The most common symptom of GERD is heartburn, or a burning discomfort in the chest that occurs shortly after eating. Many people also experience regurgitation of stomach contents up into the esophagus. This can lead to a bitter or acidic taste in the mouth.
Other GERD symptoms include:
GERD can often be managed with lifestyle changes such as weight loss, avoidance of foods that contribute to reflux, and quitting smoking. Your doctor may also suggest medications such as:
In some cases, if medications and lifestyle changes are ineffective, surgery may be recommended to treat GERD.