After we swallow the food we eat, it travels down the gullet and into the stomach. In the stomach, food is mixed up with acid and squeezed by the muscles in the stomach wall to break it down. Once it is broken down the nutrients can travel from the gut into the bloodstream. That’s what’s meant to happen. However, if the acidy half-digested food splashes back up from the stomach into the gullet it can cause problems.
The commonest symptoms of reflux are:
-Heartburn – a burning sensation in the centre of the chest behind the breast-bone. It tends to come on after eating.
-Regurgitation – stomach contents coming back up into the mouth or the back of the throat.
Less common symptoms can be things like chest pain, chronic cough, hoarseness, a feeling of a constant lump in the throat and nausea. Sometimes it can be difficult to know if symptoms are coming from reflux or from something more serious, for instance a heart problem.
The medical term for reflux is Gastro-oesophageal Reflux Disease or GORD. It’s really common and affects 10-20% of people in the Western world.
You can guess what’s coming next – reflux is yet another condition which we know can be improved or can even go away altogether by making changes to your lifestyle. In the case of reflux there’s a long list of things that can be done which can help.
Number one on the list, is to try and lose weight if you are overweight as this reduces pressure on the stomach.
You can raise the head of your bed by 15 cm. You can get wedges to put under the mattress, or alternatively you can raise the legs of the bed at the head end. This makes it harder for food to get out of the stomach and back up the gullet.
You can try and work out what foods make your symptoms worse so you can avoid them. Common culprits are coffee, chocolate, fizzy drinks, alcohol, mint, spicy and fatty foods.
If you smoke, stopping smoking helps. The junction between the gullet and the stomach closes better in those who don’t smoke, so it’s harder for stomach contents to go back up the gullet.
Don’t eat late in the evening. You can imagine that if you eat and then go to bed shortly afterwards with a full stomach that reflux is much more likely to happen. Make sure your last meal is at least a couple of hours before bed-time
Avoid tight clothes around the stomach area. They can increase pressure over the stomach area and make reflux worse.
As well as lifestyle changes medication can also help. You can buy antacids over the counter if you only have symptoms now and again. They don’t prevent reflux but are useful for treating more minor symptoms as they neutralize the acid in the stomach. You can also buy histamine blockers (Ranitidine) which reduce acid production.
If your symptoms are frequent, worrying or more severe you should see your doctor so they can discuss stronger treatments and potentially investigation. They can listen to your symptoms and decide if they think you need testing for any other conditions. If you are older or have concerning symptoms like weight loss or difficulty swallowing, or if treatment hasn’t worked for you they may want to arrange an endoscopy (telescope test) to look down into the gullet and stomach and spot any problems.
At any stage if you develop chest pains or difficulty swallowing you should seek medical attention right away.