What is reflux?

By April Hall
Info Guru,

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Burning heart
Because your esophagus lies just behind your heart, the term heartburn was coined to describe the burning sensation of reflux
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What causes reflux and how is it treated?

Nearly every time you turn on the television, you will see an advertisement for an over-the-counter or prescription product that is guaranteed to control the symptoms of reflux. The people in the commercials appear to be in desperate pain, and it is almost a relief to the viewer when the actor receives a dose of the medicine that so quickly takes away their pain.

With so much talk about reflux, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. So exactly what is reflux? What causes it? More importantly, if you have reflux, just how exactly do you treat it?


Defining Reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, more commonly known as reflux, is a condition where the esophagus becomes irritated because of the backup of stomach acid.

Your stomach has cells that produce large amounts of this strong acid, but the inner lining resists corrosion because of protective features. However, your esophagus does not have this protective quality and can be damaged by the stomach acid.

Because your esophagus lies just behind your heart, the term heartburn was coined to describe the burning sensation of reflux.


Normally, a ring of muscle at the bottom of your esophagus, called a sphincter, keeps stomach acid from entering your esophagus by closing between swallows. For sufferers of reflux, however, the sphincter relaxes between swallows, allowing corrosive stomach acid to enter the esophagus and potentially cause damage.


What Causes Reflux?


No one knows exactly what causes reflux; however, there are several factors that can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter, increasing your chances for reflux:


  • Lifestyle factors such as large amounts of alcohol, cigarettes, obesity or even poor posture can weaken your sphincter, allowing it to relax between swallows.

  • Taking medications such as antihistamines, nitrates and calcium channel blocker can be a risk factor.

  • A diet high in citric fruits and tomatoes, caffeine, fatty foods, onions, garlic, spicy foods and mints can cause stomach acid to well up in the esophagus.

  • Eating large meals and eating before bedtime are common causes of reflux.

  • Pregnancy and diabetes are also common risk factors of heartburn, or reflux.


Reflux Treatments

Now that you know the answer to the question "What is reflux?" you can begin to discover the ways to treat this painful condition. It is always best to talk with your doctor to find out whether you should seek medical attention to treat any medical condition; however, there are some ways to treat reflux yourself:


  • Avoid eating within three hours of going to sleep.

  • Elevate the head of your bed.

  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals instead of three large ones.

  • Avoid the foods (such as tomatoes and citric fruits) that are known to weaken the sphincter.

  • Stop smoking and drinking excessive alcohol.

  • Lose excess weight.


Since many of these treatments are hard to take on yourself, such as quitting smoking, it is a good idea to enlist the help of a health care professional. Your doctor may recommend a prescription medicine to help you deal with your reflux and may also be able to give you more in-depth answers to the question "What is reflux?". There are many steps you can take to find relief from this painful condition, and your doctor will help you find the treatment that is right for you.

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