Occasional indigestion can happen to anyone. But regular indigestion, either daily or several times a week, is more likely a sign of acid reflux — officially known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
Many people immediately reach for antacids or other over-the-counter medications like H2 receptor blockers (Pepcid AC) or proton pump inhibitors (Nexium). But wouldn’t you rather avoid long-term use of medications?
Five lifestyle adjustments reduced reflux symptoms by almost 40 percent, according to data published earlier this year in JAMA Internal Medicine from Nurses’ Health Study II that compiles health information every two years from more than 100,000 nurses. Researchers identified close to 43,000 women, ages 42 to 62, in that group who did not have GERD in 2007. In the ensuing 10 years, close to 9,300 developed GERD.
Here are the Fab Five that might help the 20 percent of Americans suffering from GERD:
- Normal body weight, with a BMI (body mass index) between 18.5 and 25.
- Never smoking.
- Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (at least 30 minutes a day).
- Maximum of two cups of coffee, tea or soda a day.
- Healthy diet (load up on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish and poultry).
Women in the study with these five lifestyle factors had a 37 percent less chance of developing GERD symptoms.
Some people with GERD also regurgitate food or liquid from the stomach to the mouth. More extreme cases can cause swallowing and breathing difficulties. The trouble begins in the lower esophageal sphincter, a circular band of muscle where the esophagus meets the stomach. Normally, it relaxes and opens when you swallow, then closes securely. When it doesn’t close as it should, digestive and other stomach material can flow into your esophagus.
Never ignore GERD. Talk to your doctor about medications to treat the symptoms or possible surgery if the medications do not work. Though rare, unchecked GERD can cause esophageal cancer.
“A lot of people are very surprised to hear that something as common and widespread as acid reflux can cause esophageal cancer,” says Dr. Mario Katigbak, a thoracic surgeon with Hartford HealthCare’s Digestive Health Center. “We all need acid to digest our food. The stomach, where the acid is produced, is really well-designed to kind of protect it against acid. But not so the esophagus.”