Acid reflux is also known as acid indigestion. It occurs when the valve between the esophagus and stomach doesn’t function properly. This valve is known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). LES malfunction allows food and stomach acid to back up into the esophagus. The result is usually a burning sensation felt in the mid-chest, behind the breastbone. This symptom is known as heartburn. Other symptoms of acid reflux may include a sore throat or sour taste in the back of the mouth.
If you have acid reflux at least two times a week, it’s considered to be chronic. Chronic acid reflux is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. More severe signs of GERD include:
- asthma symptoms
- dry cough
- trouble swallowing
These symptoms may occur with or without heartburn.
Left untreated, GERD can result in damage to the esophageal lining like:
- ulcers or bleeding (esophagitis)
- narrowing caused by scar tissue (strictures)
- damage to the cells of the esophagus (Barrett's esophagus)
In rare cases, Barrett’s esophagus can become esophageal cancer. This type of cancer is potentially fatal.
Some of the best treatments for GERD are lifestyle changes. Things you can do to improve your symptoms include:
- quitting smoking
- losing weight
- eating smaller meals
- eating a lower fat diet
- avoiding foods that can trigger symptoms
Foods known to trigger GERD symptoms include:
- citrus fruits
- caffeinated and carbonated beverages
- spicy foods
- fried and fatty foods
- garlic and onions
- tomatoes and tomato products
Medications can also help with symptoms of GERD. Three types of medication are used for treatment:
- H2 receptor blockers
- proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
All three types of medication are available both over-the-counter and by prescription. However, medications can be expensive. They may cost hundreds of dollars each month.
In extreme cases, surgery can also be used to treat GERD.
A number of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments have been tried to reduce symptoms of reflux and GERD. However, there is limited scientific evidence supporting their usefulness.
Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine. It uses small needles to rebalance energy flow and stimulate healing. Acupuncture has been used for at least 4,000 years.
Electroacupuncture (EA) uses electrical current along with the needles. It has been shown to increase the strength of the LES. Acupuncture has also been shown to reduce temporary (transient) lower esophageal relaxations (TLESRs), which can promote acid backflow. Acupuncture research is still preliminary. However, it may be able to treat GERD in some people.
Melatonin is usually thought of as the sleep hormone. People mostly talk about melatonin made in the pineal gland. However, nearly 500 times as much melatonin is synthesized in the intestinal tract. Most melatonin is made in the stomach, small intestine, and colon, and some is made in the esophagus as well. According to the Life Extension Foundation, studies have suggested that melatonin can stimulate activity of the LES in animal studies. Limited human studies have also shown a positive effect on GERD symptoms.
According to a study published in Phytomedicine, peppermint oil has been found to accelerate gastric emptying. GERD is associated with delayed emptying. Therefore, in theory peppermint oil could help relieve symptoms for some people with GERD. However, peppermint can also be a GERD trigger.
Hypnosis, massage, and other relaxation techniques may help reduce symptoms of GERD. Stress often makes GERD symptoms worse.