Acid reflux is very common. In fact, it’s estimated that 10 to 20% of the world might experience acid reflex symptoms.
But what exactly is acid reflux?
In the center of your chest, there is a small, muscular tunnel that separates the end of your esophagus from your stomach. It’s called your lower esophageal sphincter (LES). When you’re eating, it should be open and loose, so food can travel to your stomach. But at all other times (unless you need to vomit), it should be tightly closed. This prevents all food and digestive fluids from traveling upward. Acid reflux is just having a loose sphincter when it should be tight. It does not mean that there is too much stomach acid.
Let’s get into those stomach acids. Your stomach produces a few digestive acids. A primary one is hydrochloric acid (HCl), which breaks down proteins.. As part of your passive immune function, it kills pathogens that could linger in your intestines. Another key “digestive juice” component is pepsin, a digestive enzyme that breaks down protein. HCl activates pepsin and starts protein digestion.
Acid reflux is painful because when digestive acids are in the wrong place, it hurts. One reason it hurts is the acidity itself. Pepsin is so acidic, if it’s in the wrong place it can digest your stomach tissue instead of the food you consumed. Your stomach tissue is, however, coated with mucus to protect you from the pain of digestive acids. Your esophagus is not coated with mucus so when those acids bubble up because of a loose LES, it causes pain.
How can you treat acid reflux?
Here are a few easy-to-follow tips for tackling the causes of your acid reflux and improving the quality of your health and life.
- Slow down at mealtime
The average American eats too quickly. We don’t chew our food enough and it can cause pain in our throats and stomachs. Instead, try slowing down and chewing more thoroughly. Avoid drinking too many liquids with your meals. You might even be surprised to notice your food tasting better!
- Limit your beverages while you eat Of course, some water with each meal is fine but many people tend to gulp down drinks as they eat. Too much liquid during meals can dilute your stomach acid and make it less potent. Gas builds up and puts pressure on the LES, causing symptoms of acid reflux. Try to instead get your hydration in between meals, and use water at mealtime sparingly.
- Opt for smaller portions and meals Research shows that people who eat smaller meals have better digestion. When we eat slowly, we feel full faster and we give our stomachs more physical space for the act of digestion to place in. Many people experience dramatic acid reflux relief when they make it a habit to stop eating when they feel about 80% full.
- Make sure your clothes aren’t too tight Tight skirts, pants, or belts put pressure on the digestive organs. This can push food and digestive fluids physically upward and beyond your LES. Try to wear more comfortable, and slightly looser fits, around your waist and stomach.
- Get your magnesium in The USDA estimates that the majority of Americans don’t get optimal intake of magnesium. It’s less present in our agricultural soils now, so it’s less present in our foods! Low magnesium can cause your muscles to be too tight or to spasm erratically, including your LES.
- Track which foods cause you pain This seems like common sense, but unfortunately many Americans continuously eat foods that irritate their LES. Keep a mealtime diary and track your symptoms, so you can get a better picture of which foods are triggering your acid reflux. The most common food triggers are cooked tomato sauce, citrus juice, coffee, black tea, soda, alcohol, spicy foods, fried foods, chocolate, or minty foods.
- Avoid food before bedtime Many people report that their reflux is worst at night. This is because when our muscles relax at bedtime, if food isn’t entirely digested yet it can make its way back up your LES once you’re horizontal. Generally, try not to eat or drink anything for 2-3 hours before bedtime. This can also help improve sleep!
- Practice habits that reduce stress
These days, it feels impossible to avoid stress. Americans in general go through life very quickly, with lots of pressure on themselves. However, when our nervous symptom experiences stress, our bodies cannot rest or digest the way they need to. Introduce habits into your life that reduce stress, like a meditation practice or reading some great books.