GERD or Gastro-esophageal Reflux Disease is a chronic digestive disorder caused by a dysfunction of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This is the sphincter that serves as a gate between the esophagus and the stomach. GERD develops when this sphincter does not close well enough to prevent stomach contents and acid from flowing back into the esophagus.
During digestion, food travels through the digestive system via peristalsis. In order for food to pass into the stomach, the LES relaxes. This sphincter immediately shuts back again to prevent reflux. If it doesn’t shut well, the stomach contents, which are extremely acidic, flow back into the esophagus burning the esophagus and causing extreme pain. Over time, this condition can damage the esophageal wall. Almost everyone experiences heartburn from time to time; a regular occurrence of this (many times a week), however, leads to the long-term irritation of the esophagus which is then diagnosed as GERD. Heartburn is GERD’s most common symptom. Other GERD-related symptoms include a throat-clearing cough, dysphagia, increased production of saliva, a sour taste in the mouth, frequent burping, and regurgitation.
About 34% of the US population suffers from GERD each year. People in all ages can develop GERD although people over 40 years of age are the ones most prone to it.
The diagnosis for GERD depends on the manifested symptoms. Tests used to diagnose this condition include pressure testing of the LES, esophageal acidity testing, endoscopy, and -ray with barium swallow. The last one is done to rule out other diseases such as esophageal cancer or Barrett’s esophagus.
Foods that trigger GERD and heartburn include onions, garlic and other spicy foods, fried or fatty foods, and citrus foods such as tomatoes or oranges. Soda, coffee, and alcohol increases acid in the stomach and can exacerbate the condition. Smoking cigarettes, peppermint, and alcohol all can result in the relaxation of the LES which increase the risk of GERD or worsen the reflux even more. Factors such as hiatal hernia, obesity, and pregnancy that cause the abdomen to protrude forward and up the diaphragm, can bear more pressure on the abdomen that can result in the occurrence of GERD.
GERD is a condition that presently has no cure. Surgery is a treatment option and is done to tighten up the LES. The treatment’s objective is to relieve the symptoms and contain the damage to the digestive system. The main treatment plan of conventional medicine for GERD is medications. PPIS or proton pump inhibitors are the most commonly used drugs for GERD that can help minimize acid production in the abdomen.
PPIs work very well for the relief of the symptoms of GERD; the problem with these drugs is that when taken for an extended time period they can contribute to poor digestion of proteins that require a normal stomach acidity environment in order to break down and absorb nutrients such as calcium and vitamin B12. This eventually can result in vitamin deficiency which can disrupt the process of bone creation and re-absorption leading to increased bone fragility. The effects of GERD can especially affect women in menopause who already have bone loss issues to worry about. Long term PPI use has also been associated with the rise in the number of gastric polyps in the body. Likewise it has been demonstrated that long term PPI intake can lead to dependency that results in rebound symptoms that develop when the patient stops taking the medication.
Interestingly the ancient Chinese healers see GERD as more of a sign of an imbalance in the body system than a condition itself. Heartburn is seen as a disharmony between the stomach and the liver. According to Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) the liver regulates the direction of flow of blood, digestion, energy, and emotions of the body and when this organ is overworked often because of stress, it has a hard time keeping things from flowing smoothly and this leads to a “rebellion” in the flow of emotions, energy, digestion, and blood. With regards to GERD, instead of the normal downward flow of stomach energy, the overwork liver causes this flow to rebel upwards potentially resulting in chronic signs and symptoms of reflux, heartburn, burping, and thick greasy tongue coating. The throat-clearing cough and the lump sensation in the throat are known in TCM as “plum pit qi” and it’s a typical indication of liver qi stagnation.
There is a huge contrast of treatments used to treat GERD between conventional mainstream medicine and TCM. This is due to the fact that western medicine underestimates the role stress plays in the development of pathology is; TCM, on the other hand, considers stress to be a huge factor in the development of imbalances of the organ systems of the body.
The plan of treatment for the alleviation of GERD symptoms such as reflux and heartburn differ from person to person. Usually, however, the aim of treatment is to normalize and soothe the liver and at the same time relieve stress that is the cause of the liver’s beating up the stomach, bring back the normal downward flow of stomach energy, clear the dampness that tend to accumulate whenever stomach energy flow is disrupted and clear the heat. Both Chinese herbs and acupuncture are administered to the patient in order to achieve these objectives. The kind of herbs to be used will depend on your lifestyle, the severity of your symptoms, and your preference. One can also use one or both these modalities as complementary therapies to Western drugs to lessen the side effects of these drugs, to lower the dosage of the drugs, and to better control the symptoms.