Every single time Fanessa Chamberson, 59, ate anything with a tomato sauce base or fried foods, she would pay dearly with heartburn. “I used to indulge in foods that made me miserable. One night, I made up my mind to seek help! Thankfully, I went to a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in diseases of the digestive system and was diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). She helped me make lifestyle changes which led me to change how I was eating. She also gave me a prescription med that works well for me and now, I can get through my day without the awful heartburn.  I can also now sleep through the night!”

Fanessa is not alone in her heartburn misery! Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) typically produces heartburn which is a burning sensation in the middle of your chest that occurs when the contents from the stomach travel back up into the esophagus (the tube that carries the food from your mouth to your stomach). The condition affects more than 15 million Americans every single day. Some 35 percent of African Americans are GERD sufferers according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Older people are more apt to suffer from GERD, and people over age 65 are often prescribed medications to treat it.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of GERD are:

  • heartburn
  • sour/bitter taste in your mouth
  • a cough that comes and goes
  • hoarseness
  • bad breath
  • bloating
  • sick feeling

Your symptoms will probably worsen after a meal, when lying down or when bending over.

It is also important to note that some people might not experience a sensation of heartburn but they can have a few of the symptoms noted above.

What are the causes?

According to clinicians, there is no obvious reason as to why some foods cause or worsen GERD. The following triggers do seem to make the sufferer feel very uncomfortable:

  • chocolate
  • fried foods
  • acidic foods (like tomato based sauces, OJ, citrus fruits)
  • peppermint
  • large meals
  • coffee, alcohol, fatty or spicy foods
  • smoking
  • stress
  • anti-inflammatory meds like ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)

In addition there are other conditions that can also contribute to GERD:

  • hiatal hernia (an opening in the diaphragm–the muscular wall separating the chest cavity from the abdomen)
  • obesity

When to see a doctor?

You should make an appointment to see a doctor if the following GERD symptoms persist:

  • Symptoms persist despite taking OTC medications
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Heartburn occurs two-plus times a week

Treatment

A physician will determine what’s causing your discomfort and then decide how to treat it. Diagnostic testing might include an upper endoscopy, in which a long, flexible tube explores the esophagus (while you’re asleep), or the esophageal pH test, an outpatient procedure in which you wear a small probe for 24 hours to detect the amount of acid being produced.

When GERD is confirmed, your doctor will help you with lifestyle changes like:

  • Losing weight
  • Wearing looser fitting garments
  • Not consuming meals right before bedtime
  • Propping yourself up while you sleep instead of lying flat
  • Eating smaller meals
  • Staying upright for at least three hours after a meal

Your doctor will also discuss medications that are available to treat your condition such as:

  • Antacids that are OTC or prescription
  • H2 blockers that reduce the amount of acid your stomach makes
  • Proton-pump inhibitors that further reduce the amount of acid your stomach produces and are available both over the counter and by prescription
  • Prokinetics that help clear stomach contents and strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter or LES

There are some GERD sufferers who might need a surgical procedure such as Fundoplication where the upper part of the stomach is wrapped around the lower part of the esophagus to strengthen the LES.

Word to the wise! Not treating GERD can seriously damage your esophagus or lead to precancerous changes called Barrett’s esophagus. You might also put yourself at risk for esophagitis (irritation/swelling of the esophagus) or esophageal stricture (a consequence of esophagitis where scar tissue narrows the esophagus making swallowing difficult).

Finally, esophageal cancer can be another consequence of not seeking treatment for GERD and this can be deadly.

So PLEASE do yourself a favor, put down the OTC Pepto-Bismal, Tums, Rolaids, Maalox, Mylanta, and Milk of Magnesia and hightail it to a doctor pronto to treat your heartburn!