The Digestive System
The digestive system is a complex network of organs and pathways working together to complete the metabolic functions necessary for survival. Digestion involves the organs of the upper gastrointestinal tract such as, the throat, esophagus and stomach as well as the lower portion below the stomach, including the small and large intestine. The liver, pancreas and kidneys also play a role in digestion but as contributors, rather than direct organs. As a whole the digestive system and its contributors work together to deliver usable food nutrients to the body in a timely fashion. The process is unique and significant but can break down from time to time.
From the moment you swallow a food product, the digestive system begins breaking the food product down into a smaller, better absorbed molecule. Many complications can occur during the digestive processes that hinder the smooth flow and breakdown. One such complication, is that which commonly occurs between the esophagus and stomach.
In normal digestion, food travels through the esophagus, a tube-like structure that descends and connects to the stomach. From the esophagus food then passes a gateway, or the lower esophageal sphincter, into the stomach. Once in the stomach, food is lubricated by digestive juices secreted from glands in the mucosa of the stomach. These glands produce acid and enzymes that essentially serve to begin the process of dissolving food product before it is sent into the lower digestive tract, or small intestine, for final breakdown. Although the digestive juices in the stomach are acidic, the lining of the stomach is coated with a thick layer of mucus to protect the stomach from damage. However, these acidic juices can inadvertently travel upstream, escaping the stomach into the esophagus, causing damage. (http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/gerd/#7)
Identifying GERD Disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a serious medical complication caused by the lower esophageal sphincter opening spontaneously, allowing stomach contents to rise into the esophagus. The lower esophageal sphincter is actually a ring of muscle acting as a valve, or gate, to prevent particles of the digestive system from traveling in the wrong direction. The occasional instance of reflux is common but persistent reflux and its accompanying symptoms, which happen twice a week or more is diagnosed as GERD.
Frequent heartburn, or the sensation of burning inside the upper portion of the chest or throat, is common with GERD. Burning pain of the lower mid-chest or middle abdomen, also referred to as acid indigestion, is also a common symptom. Burning sensations followed by sour taste in the mouth or regurgitation of food and liquids with a sour taste, a sore throat and difficulty swallowing can accompany GERD. Chest pain along with dry cough and shortness of breath that seems like a potential heart attack, are rare symptoms of GERD that warrant immediate medical attention.
Who is most Vulnerable to GERD?
Those most at risk for developing GERD include individuals with asthma, diabetes, connective tissue disorders or hiatal hernia. Obesity, pregnancy and smoking also increase the risk of gastroesophageal reflux. Experiencing the symptoms of GERD persistently can become serious if untreated. Managing existing disorders that place pressure on the digestive system is an important part of managing reflux. Often an individual is unaware of the potential existence of GERD and potential underlying disease. Symptoms can take a while to appear in the case of GERD but overtime it becomes clearer as different foods cause irritation that was not normally present.
Complications from poorly managed GERD can lead to chronic esophageal inflammation. Additionally, the inflammation increases damage to the cells of the lower esophagus, causing scar tissue formation. Eventually, scar tissue narrows the pathway for food to travel and increases swallowing difficulty. Ulcers can form in the esophagus due to acid erosion and eventually bleeding peptic ulcers develop. In rare but worse cases, cancer of the esophagus develops.
What Causes GERD?
The exact cause of GERD is not fully understood within the medical community. Research is ongoing to find different links between medical contributors, foods and lifestyle factors that could cause the lower esophageal sphincter to fail. The listed risk factors increase the chance of its occurrence but essentially, GERD happens because of a poorly functioning lower esophageal sphincter. Taking the time to minimize risk helps in controlling GERD once it becomes problematic enough to induce symptoms.
Food can irritate existing GERD but food itself does not cause the condition. Common foods to avoid with a GERD flare-up includes those high in acidity such as, oranges, lemons, grapefruit and citrus blends. Caffeine, alcohol and carbonated beverages are high in acidity as well and can trigger symptoms. Keep in mind that sometimes GERD is triggered by the amount of food consumed not just the type of food. High-fat and fried foods including fried chicken, fatty red meat or even dairy causes increased acid production in the stomach. The acid can creep into the esophagus during a GERD flare, furthering the irritating symptoms of heartburn and indigestion. Certain spices like pepper, cayenne, garlic and curry are known to induce GERD-type symptoms in those with the disease. Foods made with a heavy tomato base including pizza, pastas with a red sauce, chili and the like, increase stomach acid production in some and might require avoidance to determine if they trigger symptoms. Eliminating potential food triggers from the diet is the best way to determine if the food causes irritation. A slow reintroduction of each potentially irritating item back into the diet plus taking note of immediate or ongoing symptoms can help determine if the food is best to eliminate completely from the diet or should be consumed minimally.
How to Diagnose and Treat GERD
Proper diagnosis of GERD is important for accurate treatment. A medical physician can diagnose the condition through use of scans to glean an image of the upper digestive system. An endoscopy, which is a visual probe with a camera, that is inserted into the throat can collect tissue for testing but also reveal complications in the digestive tract. Additional testing involves an acidity test to measure the contents of the stomach or an esophageal motility test to determine the movement and pressure of items through the esophagus.
Conventional treatment for GERD includes over-the-counter medications to control heartburn or prescription-strength medication. Antacids, foaming agents and stronger medications like histamine-2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors are popularly prescribed for GERD but do come with side effects. In serious GERD sufferers, surgery might also be an option, particularly if medication fails to control symptoms. Once diagnosed with GERD the goal is to manage symptoms and prevent further complications of the disease.
In the early discovery of GERD, several lifestyle habit changes can help minimize the risk of symptoms, which is what makes early diagnosis so important to a favorable prognosis. Smoking is one of the biggest GERD irritants that cause the lower esophageal sphincter to perform abnormally. Food elimination can help and eating smaller meals frequently reduces symptoms. Sometimes eating a big meal causes the sphincter muscle to remain open for longer than necessary, allowing acids to reflux upward. Losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the stress placed on the lower esophageal sphincter. After a meal, it is best to remain upright, particularly if GERD symptoms are troublesome, and avoid lying down for at least three hours after the meal. In the event of acid indigestion during the night, elevate the head of the bed to avoid lying in the prone position. Although using pillows to prop the head up is one way to elevate, it is best to secure the head of the bed from the underside with blocks so during sleep the body does not flatten completely.
Additional lifestyle considerations include the avoidance of tight-fitting clothes around the abdominal region, managing stress and implementing alternative therapeutic remedies. No specific alternative remedy is known to reverse lower esophageal damage but alternative therapies can help alleviate symptoms. Herbal remedies such as drinking teas with slippery elm, chamomile and marshmallow might ease the burning sensations of the upper and lower gastrointestinal tract.
Stress and GERD
Stress is an often overlooked trigger to reflux. When the body experiences stress, hormonal systems become imbalanced and the digestive system is vulnerable to increased acid production. Coping with stress involves identifying the stressors such as, conflict at work, grief over losses, tension in the home, or any myriad of normal life events that cause excessive worry. Once stressors are identified, taking the steps to deal with those stressors might involve seeking supportive counsel, attending a meditative program or engaging in progressive muscle relaxation, acupressure or other relaxation techniques.
Living with GERD
Living with GERD often involves periods of symptom absence but it also involves experiencing excruciating pain at times. No person wants to suffer from the symptoms of GERD or the eventual complications that can occur from prolonged suffering. Maintaining digestive health is imperative to normal daily functions and you can live pain free and virtually symptomless even with GERD if you have the right tools to achieve a healthy balance.
At times finding the right fit for alleviating GERD symptoms involves a trial and error process. Many promoters of natural means for coping with symptoms tout success but you have to be the judge. You can find a suitable source for reducing symptoms. Safe, natural, medication-free alternative healing remedies do exist and they work. Take the time to research GERD, consider the information your physician recommends and visit Reflux Remedy at www.refluxremedy.com to learn more about the safe and effective ways you can treat your GERD symptoms without invasive measures or adverse side effects. The more information you gather the better armed you can be in dealing with GERD and living a life free of discomforting symptoms.
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