The terms “heartburn,” “acid reflux” and “GERD” tend to get used interchangeably, but they all refer to very different conditions.
In this week’s blog post, we’ll look at the differences between heartburn, acid reflux and GERD, along with some things you can do to bring relief if you’re suffering from these digestive ailments.
Why do they call it “heartburn”?
Heartburn presents itself as a pain in your chest – and is sometimes mistaken for a heart attack—but it has nothing to do with the heart. The discomfort you feel comes from your esophagus.
Heartburn occurs when the acid in your esophagus causes a burning or tightening sensation in your chest. For some people, this sensation moves into the neck, or soreness behind the breastbone.
It’s a common ailment – about 20 percent of Americans experience it at least once a month – but it’s manageable by taking a few steps, including:
- Eating fewer fatty foods.
- Staying away from spicy or acidic foods.
- Losing weight.
- If you smoke, giving it up.
Infrequent heartburn can be treated with antacids, but if you find yourself taking antacids multiple times a week, check with your doctor. Your heartburn may be a symptom of a more serious condition such as GERD or acid reflux.
How do I know if I have acid reflux?
Inside your digestive system, you’ll find the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES, a muscle that connects your stomach and your esophagus. Its job is to tighten the esophagus when food passes into your stomach. But if the LES is weak – or fails to tighten properly – stomach acid can move into your esophagus. This is where acid reflux gets its name.
Acid reflux can cause heartburn – as we noted earlier, heartburn is often a symptom of acid reflux – as well as other symptoms: Coughing, sore throat, a bitter taste in the throat, a sour taste in the mouth, and burning or pressure in the chest.
Risk factors for acid reflux include:
- Snacking close to bedtime
- Laying down right after a heavy meal.
- Drinking alcohol, caffeinated drinks, or soda, and eating foods such as chocolate, mint, garlic, onions, tomatoes, citrus fruits and anything that is fatty or spicy
- Taking aspirin, ibuprofen, and some muscle relaxants and blood pressure medications
What does GERD stand for?
GERD is short for “gastroesophageal reflux disease.” Think of it as acid reflux’s tougher, meaner older brother. It’s a chronic form of acid reflux, diagnosed when acid reflux happens more than twice weekly, or causes inflammation in the esophagus.
You may not be able to treat GERD with antacids or over-the-counter medications. Symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Regurgitation, or a feeling like your stomach contents are coming up
- Bad breath
- Damage to tooth enamel due to acid
- Persistent, dry coughing or asthma
- Difficulty swallowing
The causes of GERD are like those of acid reflux, and the symptoms can be controlled with treatment, along with making changes to your diet, and avoiding cigarettes or alcohol. Some people may need surgery to strengthen their LES.
How do I know it’s not just heartburn?
You have a one-in-five chance of experiencing some heartburn once a month. How do you know it’s not something more serious? Ask yourself these questions:
- Is your heartburn worse than it used to be?
- Does it wake you up at night?
- Are you having trouble swallowing?
- Do the symptoms persist even after taking over-the-counter heartburn medications?
- Do you need to take this medication more often, or in larger doses, to manage your heartburn?
- Are you hoarse or do you have asthma after meals, when lying down, or exercising?
- Are you losing weight without explanation?
- Do you have an unexplained loss of appetite?
- Is heartburn interfering with your daily activities?
If you said “Yes” to any of these questions, see a doctor. It could be a sign that your heartburn is just a symptom of a chronic condition, putting you at risk for a potentially pre-cancerous ailment called Barrett’s esophagus.
Prevention of these conditions
Prevention of heartburn, acid reflux, GERD, as well as many other digestive issues, include lifestyle changes to improve overall digestive health: losing weight, dietary changes, eating smaller meals, and avoiding fatty foods, alcohol and cigarettes.
Dietary supplements can also improve digestive health. Bioactive peptides found in Proper Nutrition’s products such as Seacure® and Seavive® work directly in your gastrointestinal tract to reduce the symptoms of digestive disorders and restore gut integrity. These peptides have also shown to be beneficial in wound healing and immune system support.