When normal acid reflux becomes chronic (defined as twice a week or more), it's known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. More severe signs of GERD include asthma symptoms, a dry cough, or trouble swallowing—which may occur with or without heartburn.
Left untreated, GERD can result in damage to the esophageal lining, such as:
- ulcers or bleeding (esophagitis)
- narrowing caused by scar tissue (strictures)
- damage to the cells of the esophagus (Barrett's esophagus), which may lead to esophageal cancer, a potentially fatal condition
Standard Treatments for GERD
Some of the best treatments for GERD can be lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, losing weight, or eating smaller meals more frequently. As certain foods may worsen symptoms, GERD sufferers can often find relief by avoiding them. Foods to steer clear of include alcohol, citrus fruits, caffeinated and carbonated beverages, fried or fatty foods, and spicy foods, including garlic and onions.
Many people turn to medication to help with symptoms of GERD. These include everything from antacids (Tums) to H2 receptor blockers (Pepcid AC) or proton pump inhibitors (Prilosec). However, medications—especially proton pump inhibitors—can be expensive, costing hundreds of dollars each month. In extreme cases, surgery may be a last resort treatment.
The most common surgical procedure used to treat GERD is the Nissen fundoplication. In this procedure, a portion of the stomach is lifted over the junction between the stomach and esophagus to increase pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This prevents stomach acids from entering the esophagus. Although highly effective, the Nissen fundoplication may result in increased bloating, flatulence, and trouble swallowing.
Magnet therapy (also known as magnetic therapy or magnotherapy) is an alternative treatment that involves the use of static magnetic fields. Practitioners of magnet therapy claim that products such as magnetic bracelets, straps, and blankets can provide relief for everything from back pain to fibromyalgia and even GERD. Unfortunately, there is no medical basis for these claims.
In 2009, researchers from the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth, England analyzed data from nearly 30 studies on static magnets. Researchers found them to be ineffective as a medical device in nearly all applications. However, that isn't to say that magnets are useless when it comes to GERD.
In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a device known as the LINX Reflux Management System for the treatment of GERD. The LINX system is a ring of titanium beads with magnetic cores, connected together with titanium wires. The single-use device—which is surgically implanted at the LES to improve function—has been found to be successful at relieving symptoms in patients for whom other therapies are ineffective.
Acupuncture is a treatment that uses stainless steel needles on specific points along the body (acupoints) to rebalance energy flow. This technique has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for at least 4,000 years.
Electroacupuncture (EA) stimulates needles with an electrical current rather than manual manipulation. Acupuncture—especially EA—increases LES pressure and reduces transient lower esophageal relaxations (TLESRs), according to a 2010 study published in the journal Autonomic Neuroscience.
The findings suggest that acupuncture and EA may be used to successfully treat GERD in some patients, although the researchers concluded that more studies are needed.
Other Complementary and Alternative Treatments (CAM) for GERD
Lonicera, the Chinese honeysuckle flower, has been evaluated in animal studies as a possible treatment for GERD. In one such study, rats that were given a preparation of the flower were found to have "significant improvements in esophageal lesion scores and thickness of the esophageal mucous membrane." This may indicate a usefulness for treating GERD in humans, although no studies have been done as of yet.
Although the pineal gland is usually associated with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, nearly 500 times as much is synthesized in the intestinal tracts of mammals, including humans. In fact, most of the production of melatonin occurs in the stomach, small intestine, and colon.
There appears to be some production of melatonin in the esophagus as well. Studies have found it to be an important molecule for signaling movement between the gut and the liver. It’s also been shown to stimulate activity of the LES to prevent acid-pepsin-induced esophagitis in animal studies. However, melatonin's efficacy in humans is still being studied.
Peppermint oil has been found to accelerate gastric emptying (especially in the early phase) while decreasing pressure in the resting LES, which could help relieve symptoms for some people with GERD.
Although the jury is still out, other alternative treatments such as hypnosis, massage, and relaxation techniques such as guided imagery have been found to be helpful for some. Talk to your doctor about trying an alternative technique for helping to manage your GERD.