Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
Gastroesophageal reflux is a common condition that many people experience on occasion. A large meal, or eating certain types of trigger foods, can cause the lower esophageal sphincter to open spontaneously, or not close properly. The LES is a ring of muscle that acts like a valve to prevent the release of stomach contents into the esophagus. During an episode of GER, stomach contents can rise up the esophagus and may be tasted in the mouth. Since stomach contents typically contain acid, a burning sensation (commonly referred to as heartburn) is felt in the chest.
While gastroesophageal reflux is common and not a cause for alarm, GERD can be a sign of more significant problems. GERD is gastroesophageal reflux disease, defined as two or more episodes of gastroesophageal reflux per week. In GERD, the lower esophageal sphincter becomes more relaxed, meaning that it is open more often than is normal. This leads to more frequent episodes of GER.
The exact cause of the disease is unclear, but it is known that obesity and smoking are risk factors. Certain foods can trigger attacks of GER, or worsen the symptoms. These may include citrus, chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, fatty foods, onions, garlic, tomato, and spicy foods. Untreated GERD can, over time, lead to chronic inflammation of the esophagus, and an increased risk of esophageal cancer.
If you are overweight or smoke and have GERD, then losing weight or ceasing smoking may help alleviate symptoms. Eliminating trigger foods from the diet, and eating smaller, more frequent meals, can also be helpful.