It’s unclear why one person suffers from GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) while someone else only experiences sporadic heartburn even when diet, lifestyle and other factors are identical. Nor is it clear exactly what conditions cause GERD. Factors that can trigger GERD symptoms, however, are well known. Hiatal hernias, certain foods, smoking, and obesity are all linked to gastroesophageal reflux.
Acid Reflux 101
When discussing GERD and acid reflux it’s important to understand how acid reflux occurs. The mouth and the stomach are connected by a tube called the esophagus. The inner lining of the esophagus is not as durable as the stomach lining, which is designed to withstand stomach acid.
The lower esophageal sphincter prevents stomach acid from travelling up from the stomach into the esophagus. The lower esophageal sphincter is a smooth muscular ring that seals tightly when food is not passing into the stomach. If food is swallowed, the esophageal sphincter relaxes, opening a passageway into the stomach.
This system prevents stomach acid from washing back up into the esophagus – an action known as reflux. In most people the system works well, although not perfectly. Most people have experienced some degree of heartburn, which occurs when the sensitive lining of the esophagus comes into contact with stomach acid.
People with GERD however, experience acid reflux on a regular basis. Either their lower esophageal sphincter relaxes when it should be closed, or the muscle cannot close completely. Both circumstances can trigger GERD symptoms.
Hiatal Hernias and Acid Reflux
A hiatal hernia occurs when a piece of the stomach pushes through the diaphragm, which separates the stomach from the chest. The esophagus passes through a hole in the diaphragm called the esophageal hiatus.
If the esophageal hiatus is too large, a portion of the stomach can slip through it into the chest, interfering with the lower esophageal sphincter’s ability to close properly. People with GERD often have hiatal hernias, although acid reflux can also occur without the presence of a hiatal hernia.
Anyone can develop a hiatal hernia at any stage of life, but the risk of hiatal hernias rises as people age. People over the age of fifty are most likely to develop hiatal hernias.
Smoking and Acid Reflux
Smoking increases the risk of many health conditions, including gastroesophageal reflux disease. Smoking relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, allowing stomach acid to enter the esophagus. Quitting smoking goes a long way towards treating GERD (although, as any smoker knows, quitting is easier said than done).
Food that Triggers GERD
No specific food or drink causes GERD, but certain types of food are known to trigger GERD symptoms. Spicy foods, citrus fruits, caffeine and tomato-based food are all known to trigger acid reflux, as are chocolate, onions and garlic.
Alcohol is a common trigger of GERD symptoms, as alcoholic drinks irritate the lower esophageal sphincter. Other foods have the same effect as smoking, and relax the esophageal sphincter. Peppermint-based foods, for instance, are well-known for their ability to cause acid reflux, and should be avoided by anyone who suffers from GERD.
Body Weight and GERD
A person’s body weight influences his or her risk of GERD. People who are overweight or obese have higher rates of GERD than people whose weight is at healthier levels. It’s thought that extra weight places pressure on the abdomen, which in turn causes GERD symptoms by forcing stomach contents into the esophagus. Losing weight can help alleviate these symptoms.
Acid reflux is also common during pregnancy. Weight gain is only partially to blame for GERD symptoms during pregnancy, however. Hormonal changes are also thought to play a role in increased acid reflux, and the growing fetus puts pressure on the stomach.
You don’t need to be overweight or pregnant to put pressure on your abdomen. Tight clothing works much like excess weight, squeezing the abdomen and increasing the risk of heartburn or acid reflux.
Not all GERD triggers can be avoided – you may be susceptible to hiatal hernias, for instance. Other triggers, such as specific foods, smoking and weight gain, can be avoided, reducing the risk and frequency of uncomfortable acid reflux symptoms.
Enjoy the following video explaining GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease
If you enjoyed “GERD Triggers: Smoking, Obesity and Other Causes of Heartburn,” feel free to check out our other heartburn articles!