Got GERD? How do you get heartburn?

GERD is an acronym (like a nickname) for gastroesophageal reflux disease, meaning you have it most of the time. GER is occasional reflux. To simplify things, I’ll only use the first acronym or I’ll call it “reflux.”

What is GERD? How do you get heartburn?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is commonly called “reflux”, or “acid reflux”, or “heartburn” and it affects more than 60 million Americans at least once per month, according to WedMD. Reflux is one of the causes of indigestion.

When you eat, food goes into your mouth and is chewed. When you swallow, the food travels down through the esophagus by muscles contracting and relaxing. Then the food enters into the stomach, and a valve (a ring of muscle called a “sphincter muscle”) is supposed to close and prevent the food from re-entering the esophagus.

Here is a simplified diagram of the digestive system showing where the valve is located.

In GERD and GER, the valve doesn’t close well enough, and liquids, food and stomach acid can flow back into the esophagus and sometimes even into the back of the throat or the mouth. Stomach acid is very acidic, so it burns the tissues lining the esophagus, throat and mouth.

What are Risk Factors for GERD?

According to PubMed Health and WebMD, you are at risk if you are:

  • Experiencing a hiatal hernia in which part of the stomach gets above the diaphragm, the muscle and connective tissue that separates the chest and abdominal cavities
  • Obese
  • Pregnant
  • Suffering from scleroderma, an autoimmune disease characterized by changes in the connective tissue of the skin, blood vessels, muscles and/or internal organs
  • Smoking
  • Eating certain foods such as citrus fruits, chocolate, caffeinated drinks, alcohol, spicy foods, fatty or fried foods, garlic, onions, peppermint and tomatoes. These foods are common triggers which can make acid reflux worse, but that doesn’t mean that they bother everyone with GERD.
  • Taking some medications

Medications such as these can cause or aggravate GERD. How many of these are you on?

  • Anticholinergics (such as for seasickness)
  • Beta-blockers for high blood pressure or heart disease
  • Bronchodilators for asthma
  • Calcium channel blockers for high blood pressure
  • Dopamine-type drugs for Parkinson’s disease
  • Birth control pills or hormone pills containing progestin
  • Sedatives for anxiety or sleeplessness
  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen are known to irritate the mucous membrane in the stomach lining the stomach

11 Other Causes of Reflux Not Usually Mentioned in Conventional Medicine

When you look at the above diagram of the digestive system, you notice that it is basically one long tube from mouth to anus. What you may not realize, however, is that a dysfunction in one part of the tube can have consequences in other parts of the tube.

When people think of GERD, they only think the stomach and the esophagus are involved, when in reality, any point along the digestive tract can be part of the problem.

Eleven other causes of reflux that are not usually mentioned in conventional medicine are:

  1. Dysbiosis, or unbalanced flora, in the small and large intestines. Reflux may be a sign that your bacterial and yeast flora in your digestive tract are out of balance.
  2. Sensitivities to foods or drinks which may or may not include the common trigger foods. What people may not realize is that foods they are sensitive to can cause reflux by causing a delayed-antibody response which can set the stage for gut imbalance. Two likely culprits are milk and gluten, but you can be sensitive to any food.
  3. Incomplete digestion of foods caused by lack of stomach acid (yes, you can have heartburn because you don’t make enough stomach acid!)
  4. Eating your food too fast so that it is not properly chewed. If you don’t thoroughly chew your food, your stomach has to work harder to try to break it down, and that can contribute to reflux. Part of the way the stomach does this is by producing more stomach acid and squeezing and relaxing, pushing against the valve that is supposed to keep food down.
  5. Drinking liquids to wash down food instead of chewing it and allowing digestive enzymes in your mouth to start breaking it down.
  6. Incomplete digestion of foods caused by lack of sufficient digestive enzymes which decrease as most people age.
  7. Overeating.
  8. Lying down, exercising, or otherwise putting pressure on the stomach after eating. A wedge pillow can help when you're sleeping.
  9. Stress. Stress can also contribute to reflux, as it impairs digestion. Stress also disrupts the balance of flora.
  10. Gastritis. Reflux may be a sign of gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining.
  11. Constipation. Reflux may be a sign of constipation.

Sleeping Solutions for GERD

Getting a good night's sleep can be difficult with GERD (or pregnancy for that matter). Here are some user-reviewed options for wedge pillows.

The pillow should be big enough and firm enough to support your back. A longer pillow is better if you are a side sleeper. Several sizes and heights are included.
Note that you may want to air out foam pillows before using. Read the fine print to know the conditions for being able to return it.

I used one of these during my pregnancies years ago just to be able to breathe better. I also used it after I had sinus surgery.

Medcline Complete Reflux Relief System

Medcline Complete Reflux Relief System: 24" wide, adjustable head height, and optional side extensions - "I've suffered from acid reflux for years and after trying many different medicines and trying to prop up normal pillows, I think this inclined pillow system from Medcline has solved the problem." Jan. 4, 2013 review.

Wedge Pillow for GERD

Rose Medical Wedge Pillow for GERD: 25" x 23" x12" - "Definitely worth a try if you suffer from GERD." Feb. 18, 2013 review.

MedSlant Wedge Pillow for GERD

MedSlant Wedge Pillow for GERD: 32" x 24" x 7" - "I've had acid reflux for many years. No combination of pillows can substitute for this type of long wedge that will elevate your head and still keep alignment with your back all the way down to your waist. This is big relief." - Feb. 25, 2013 review

The Bedge Wedge Pillow for GERD

The Bedge Wedge Pillow for GERD: 42" x 30" x 9" - "I have been searching for an Acid Reflux wedge product and this is the best one. It works and it works well. If you have GERD like I do you will get the relief you are looking for with this product. It's very large and comfortable and the best part is the acids stay down." August 25, 2011 review.

What are the Symptoms of GERD?

Now that you know the causes of reflux, learn more about the surprising symptoms of reflux, how it is diagnosed, and some complications here.

Is There Hope for GERD?

Check out these pages to learn about the pros and cons of the different therapies.

Treatment with antacids.

Treatment with proton-pump inhibitors

Treatment with H2 blockers.

Help from probiotics, and why you need stomach acid.


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