Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD is a disorder in which the acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus irritating the lining and causing symptoms like heartburn. Many people experience reflux from time to time, but when it becomes a regular occurrence or disruptive to the quality of their lives, it is considered a disease and must be addressed. According to the Mayo Clinic website (www.mayoclinic.com), symptoms of GERD are:
(**Of course if you have chest pain, you should get this checked out immediately because it might be a sign of something more serious, like a heart attack!) Many people who have GERD don’t even realiz e it because they do not experience the typical heartburn/reflux and present with only the other symptoms from the list above.
There are a few reasons why GERD might develop. If the esophageal sphincter (the muscle that separates the stomach from the esophagus) does not close properly, a leakage of stomach acid can occur. Stomach acid is necessary for the breakdown of food as well as for protection against harmful bacteria and microbes, but an overproduction can be damaging and irritating. Interestingly, anunderproduction of acid can lead to similar symptoms, as the stomach doesn’t
have enough acid to breakdown food properly and kill bad bacteria. Eating too fast can overwhelm the stomach and put pressure on the abdomen. If food lingers
too long in the stomach, it can also cause heartburn and indigestion. Risk factors for reflux include smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, pregnancy and
hiatal hernia (a herniation of the stomach through the hole in the diaphragm that separates the chest and the abdominal cavities- this allows acid to flow
upward). Certain medications may make a person more susceptible to reflux. Untreated GERD can lead to serious problems in the esophagus, such as bleeding,
ulcerations, strictures and increased risk for esophageal cancer, to name a few. Western medicine usually treats reflux with over the counter or
prescription medications and in severe cases, doctors may even recommend surgery. Prescription medications do not adequately address the root cause of
the problem and lifestyle changes should be made in order to correct it more thoroughly.
TCM & Reflux
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is thousands of years old and ancient texts describe several syndromes that can underlie what is known
today as GERD. The spleen and stomach are thought to work together to help the body ingest and disseminate the food into fuel and qi or energy that the rest
of the body can utilize. The liver works closely with these organs as well and when there is an imbalance between the liver and the spleen/stomach, stagnation
and digestive symptoms arise. There may be a deficiency of the spleen/stomach energy and the stagnation here may give rise to extreme heat or fire, causing a
backwards flow of stomach qi manifesting as belching, regurgitation and heartburn. If stagnation combines with cold properties, a different disorder of cold damp
accumulation is apparent and may manifest as symptoms of bloating and diarrhea, for instance. Food stagnating in the stomach can also cause reflux symptoms-
and so on. So the TCM practitioner must look at all of the symptoms that coincide with the reflux in order to determine which syndrome the patient has and how to treat it accordingly. Disharmony between the liver and the spleen/stomach is most commonly the culprit.
Improper diet is a major contributor to these types of syndromes. Emotional stress is a factor as well. Here in NYC, I see so many patients with this problem, partly due to the fast-paced lives we all lead here. When people feel stressed or overwhelmed, they don’t digest properly. They eat too fast, consume food at irregular times and often eat junk foods out of convenience or anxiety.
What You Can Do About Reflux
There are SO many things a person can do for this disease without taking drugs! When a patient comes to my office, I review their myriad
of symptoms and employ a protocol on acupuncture points that are appropriate for their specific syndrome. Usually the points I needle for reflux include those
on the stomach and pericardium channels and some on the midline of the body around the abdomen. I always include liver-soothing points too. Some herbal
formulas may be given depending on the severity of the case and again, the formula depends on the differentiation of symptoms. In addition to acupuncture,
I recommend changes to lifestyle such as:
1) Avoid trigger foods that may contribute to reflux such as chocolate, mint, spicy or greasy food, citrus, alcohol, coffee, fizzy drinks, raw onions.
2) Reduce your stress level- either with meditation or yoga or exercise. Any way you can moderate your stress is helpful
3) Quit smoking
4) Eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day and don’t eat 3 hours before lying down
5) Elevate your head 8 inches with a pillow when you lie down so that the acid doesn’t backflow.
6) Try digestive enzymes, probiotics or supplements like DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice- safe to use for hypertensive people), aloe vera juice, slippery elm tablets or
marshmallow root, or chew mastic gum
7) If you know you have an overproduction of acid, drinking warm water and lemon can actually make your body more alkaline
Even more can be done with holistic home remedies and diet, but it all depends on the cause of the GERD and the determined TCM diagnosis.