Let’s swallow our pride, and learn to stomach the truth, because today’s discussion focusses on just that: the oesophagus and stomach. First, let’s do a quick anatomy lesson: the oesophagus is the tube that actually physically transports the food from your mouth, down your throat and into your stomach. It runs down behind your windpipe, and passes through your diaphragm before connecting to your stomach. The stomach (not the soft, squishy bulgy bit on your outside, nor the sculpted ab area) is the sac-like organ where all of your chewed-up food is collected to be pulverised further, before moving on to the rest of the digestive system (namely, your intestines).
It works kind of like a food-processor
that mixes the food together with stomach acid into a digestible pulp. Most major issues experienced with these parts of the Gastro-Intestinal Tract (GIT) include heartburn, acid reflux and the more serious Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, known as GERD. While heartburn or reflux can sound commonplace and rather menial, the impact of such issues – and even more so issues like GERD – on your quality of life can be immense. Heartburn and acid-reflux are often described as an uncomfortable, painful and burning sensation in your chest or throat that crops up after over-eating. To understand why we get heartburn, we need to go back to the anatomy of the oesophagus and the stomach.
At the point where the oesophagus meets the stomach, there is a sphincter muscle called the lower oesophageal sphincter, which acts like a lid, or a one-way valve, to keep the stomach contents where it belongs: inside the stomach. Sometimes, this muscle can be weakened or dysfunctional and may not close properly, allowing stomach contents (which includes a whole lot of acid) to push up and irritate the lining of the oesophagus. It can become so severe that it sometimes causes regurgitation, which is more commonly called acid reflux.
Having heartburn or acid reflux
once in a while isn’t a huge crisis.
It’s actually considered relatively normal to experience it once a month or so. But, when it becomes something that happens a couple of times a week, you are quite possibly looking at a GERD-situation and not just normal heartburn. Heartburn itself can result in feelings of discomfort, pain and burning in the throat and chest that sometimes even leads to a dry cough or interrupted sleep. Luckily, the first step to treating something as serious as GERD is easily attended to through means of lifestyle changes. This includes shedding a few kilograms to be at a healthier weight, quitting smoking and a few do’s and don’ts when it comes to food. Here are a few worth noting:
- Avoid peppermint: Sadly, peppermint can really irritate an already irritated digestive tract
- Go slow on the chocolate: The caffeine and theobromine found in chocolate has been found to have a negative effect on the lower oesophageal sphincter (LES), often preventing it from closing properly – which allows for reflux of acids
- Hold the tomatoes! Whilst they are considered to be a really healthy addition to your menu, tomatoes are very acidic, and more acid only irritates the oesophageal lining further
- Making lemonade out of lemons sounds very optimistic, but be cautious with citrus if you tend to have gastric issues: they are really acidic and will not only contribute to irritating the oesophageal lining, but may actually aggravate acid reflux entirely
- Skip the fatty foods: fried, greasy and overly-fatty foods can prevent the lower oesophageal sphincter muscle from closing properly too. It also takes a lot longer to digest and this means that heartburn can last longer as a result.
- Beware of coffee and carbonated drinks: Terrible to say, but both coffee and soda-type drinks can act as irritants and cause heartburn too, especially in the later parts of your day
- Spice down your life: As great as spices are, the more fiery ones may actually be the root cause of your heartburn. Rather go a bit lighter on the spices, and consider a process of elimination in trying to figure out which one’s trigger heartburn
- Check the timing, and size, of your meals: Larger meals, and especially meals eaten close to bed time, can also cause heartburn. This may sound obvious, but going too long between meals often triggers a binge-eating spree, or over-eating because of hunger – this is a sure- fire way to head to heartburn valley!
- Bananas: So good for you on so many levels, bananas are also alkaline and can help neutralise some of the acid build up
Some of the issues mentioned here seem easy to control – but remember that dosing yourself with antacids or gulping down the Gaviscon is only a treatment of the symptom. The problem can persist and even get worse, if you don’t deal with the root cause. And trust me, for it to get worse than this means a lot of time spent seeing doctors. Keep an eye out for our next chapter in the GIT series…