Linda Crampton is a former teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
What Is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a condition in which stomach acid and partially digested food travel up from the stomach into the esophagus instead of traveling down into the small intestine. The acid reflux (movement of acid in the wrong direction) causes heartburn, which is a burning sensation in the chest. Acid reflux isn't always classified as GERD, but if it occurs frequently, it may be. Frequent episodes of acid in the esophagus must be treated in order to prevent potentially dangerous health problems from developing.
I've never been diagnosed with GERD, but I've experienced episodes of acid reflux and heartburn for a number of years. In my case, the condition is linked to a dietary factor. If I avoid wheat, I don't suffer from reflux. If I'm silly and eat food containing wheat—which I do at times—I have to suffer the consequences or eat the chewable calcium carbonate tablets that are sold as antacids. Repeatedly taking medicines for a situation that I could avoid is not a good idea. For me, and perhaps for some other acid reflux sufferers, the best solution for the problem is a dietary one. A doctor should be consulted if the condition is severe or if major changes are needed in the diet.
In the United Kingdom, esophagus is spelled oesophagus and GERD is referred to as GORD.
The Lower Esophageal or Cardiac Sphincter
GERD is caused by the faulty behavior of a circular muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES. The muscle is also known as the cardiac sphincter. It's found at the end of the esophagus where the stomach begins.
Normally, when food leaves the esophagus and enters the stomach, the LES contracts and closes the stomach entrance. This action prevents food from going the wrong way. In people with gastroesophageal reflux disease, the LES doesn't do its job. This allows acid and stomach contents to travel backward (or "reflux") into the esophagus.
Once gastroesophageal reflux disease appears, it's often a lifelong condition. Medications that can relieve the symptoms exist, but a change in diet can also be very helpful in treating the disorder. Even if medications can't be avoided, dietary changes may reduce the amount of medication that's required and greatly improve symptoms.
A small amount of reflux from the stomach is normal and may not cause symptoms. When people say that they have "acid reflux," they generally mean that the effects are noticeable. The information in this article is intended for general interest. If you have questions or concerns about your condition or the health of someone that you care for, you should visit a doctor.
Acid Reflux, Heartburn, and GERD Facts
The terms acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD are related to each other but don't mean exactly the same thing.
"Acid reflux" means that a significant amount of stomach acid is regurgitated and enters the esophagus. This can occur due to a temporary alteration in the behavior of the lower esophageal sphincter. The sphincter may be pushed open by a very full stomach, for example—especially when a person is lying down or leaning over—or by excess fat in the abdomen. Tight-fitting clothes may also trigger acid reflux, and so can exercises that increase abdominal pressure. In sensitive people, certain foods or drinks can relax the LES and allow stomach contents to enter the esophagus, especially when they are ingested in large quantities. Acid reflux is occasionally known as gastroesophageal reflux.