Have you ever experienced heart burn? It is that burning sensation in your chest which is followed by regurgitation of sour liquid from your stomach into the mouth. You would perhaps attribute this condition to indigestion and acidity. Right, but if you experience this sensation often, may be more than twice a week, don’t ignore it. For, it means you are suffering from Acid Reflux, called Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) in medical terms. Though very common, it is not something you should ignore as if not treated in time it can lead to serious implications.
“Acid Reflux is a chronic disease that occurs when stomach acid or bile flows into the food pipe (esophagus) and irritates its lining. Symptoms include burning pain in the chest that usually occurs after eating and worsens when lying down,” says Dr Aditya Jayaraman, consultant physician, Institute of Renal Sciences and Kidney Transplantation, Max Superspeciality Hospital, Delhi.
Dr Jayaraman adds that most people ignore this condition, preferring to opt for home remedies without realising that they are doing more harm to their digestive tract. “It is a very common disease. Almost 60 % of my patients complain of indigestion and acidity. And of this, almost 20% have already developed GERD. If acidity and indigestion were treated in time, this condition wouldn’t have developed,” he informs.
“I often experienced this sort of a feeling and in the process, antacids became a regular in my diet. I did not pay much attention till my condition worsened and surgery was the only option,” says J K Jain, a septuagenarian, who underwent the surgery for barrette esophagus, an abnormal change in the cells of esophagus due to repeated exposure to stomach acids caused from acid reflux. A person with barrette esophagus is 40% more likely to develop cancer of esophagus.
“What people don’t realize is that when untreated over a long period of time, it can lead to esophageal cancer,” he adds. A 1999 study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that patients with chronic, untreated heartburn of many years duration were at a substantially greater risk of developing esophageal cancer, which is one of the fastest growing, and among the more lethal forms of cancer.
A common cause of this disease is a condition called Hiatal Hernia. In this case, the upper part of the stomach and the valve at the opening of the stomach move above the muscle that separates the stomach from the chest. This muscle is called diaphragm. It is the diaphragm that helps keep acid in our stomach in its place. But in case of Hiatal Hernia, the acid can move up into the esophagus as the valve at the opening of stomach opens often due to change in its location.
Apart from Hiatal Hernia, there are many reasons which augment acid reflux. These include consuming a diet rich in protein and red meat, excess consumption of fatty and oily food, lack of physical activity, obesity, smoking and consumption of alcohol.
In normal conditions, the valve at the opening of the stomach closes as soon as the food passes down the esophagus. In people suffering from acid reflux, this valve opens too often. As a result, the acids produced by the stomach to digest the food move up into the esophagus. The burning sensation is due to these acids.
While stomach acids are a must for digesting food in the stomach, their moving into the esophagus causes a lot of harm. This is because while the stomach wall is made in such a manner that it can withstand the acids produced while digestion of food, the esophageal wall is not.
“As a protective measure, the esophagus starts producing more cells in its wall and over a period of time, this is what leads to tumors and cancers,” says Dr Jayaraman.
According to a study done by the Department of Gastroenterology, Coimbatore Medical College and Hospital, the risk of esophageal cancer is 3.5 times higher with alcohol consumption, 2.5 times higher for tobacco users, and 2.8 times higher for betel nut chewers and smokers.
In another study, conducted by AIIMS, it has been found that mortality rate of esophageal cancer is too significant to be ignored. And since it is more often resistant to chemotherapy and radiotherapy, surgery is the only and the best mode of treatment.
But there’s good news
The good news is that acid reflux can be treated with diet and lifestyle changes. One of the most effective ways to treat acid reflux disease is to avoid the foods and beverages that trigger symptoms. These include spicy food, red meat and high protein diet. Citrus fruits like tomato, mint, garlic and onions too augment the condition.
Ways to avoid acid reflux
If the condition does not improve even after making all these changes, visit a doctor. There are different kinds of medicines that can safely treat this disease with minimal side effects. These include antacids and atypical antipsychotic medicines.
Do not ignore even a seemingly trivial condition as acidity when it is too frequent.