GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is commonly known as chronic heartburn or acid reflux, because of the burning sensation in the chest and sometimes throat, as well as a sour taste in the mouth, which are tell-tale symptoms. Heartburn is a symptom of a condition in which stomach acid or occasionally bile flows back into the esophagus. This constant backwash or reflux can irritate the lining of the food pipe and cause inflammation, and lead to further problems such as ulcers and constricting of the esophagus.
Many people manage the discomfort of heartburn with over-the-counter remedies, which may offer temporary or only partial relief. For more severe GERD, prescription medications or even surgery may be recommended, and new alternative treatments are being developed.
GERD occurs when the muscle that holds the esophagus closed where it meets the stomach relaxes abnormally or weakens, allowing stomach acid to flow up into the esophagus. GERD can also be caused by anything that puts extra pressure on the stomach and diaphragm, such as a hernia, obesity, or pregnancy. GERD commonly develops in people who have diabetes, and there is also a link between GERD and asthma sufferers.
Certain foods can aggravate GERD such as fatty or spicy foods, chocolate, caffeine, onions, tomato sauce, carbonated beverages, mint, and alcohol. Eating large meals or lying down soon after eating can also aggravate GERD, as can taking certain medications. Smoking may also aggravate GERD. Eating smaller meals, wearing clothes that do not constrict the abdomen, and eliminating heartburn triggers, such as certain foods, can help to reduce this condition.
In Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), GERD is seen as a liver and stomach function disorder. The condition may worsen in the spring, when the liver is most active, or with emotional upset, which aggravates the stomach. Conventional medicine often does not make the connection between the liver and the stomach, and therefore treatment often focuses solely on treating the stomach, which may help alleviate the symptoms but not the root cause. In Chinese medicine, the liver and stomach are very closely related, with the liver helping to regulate the stomach and keep it in balance if it becomes too excessive or unbalanced. If the liver is not functioning properly, it can cause problems in the stomach. One of these problems is the disruption of the flow of stomach energy, which normally moves in a downward direction. When the stomach energy is pushed upwards, acid reflux is the result.
Acupuncture treatment balances the function of the liver and the stomach, so that these organs work in harmony again. To support a healthy balance between the liver and stomach, healthy eating habits are important, as are finding ways to manage stress and emotions. Because the liver is very closely tied to our emotions, prolonged anger, stress, frustration, or emotional upset can cause the liver to become unbalanced and interfere with its ability to do its job properly. Bringing it back into balance will see many symptoms resolving without the need for medications or other interventions. As with many conditions, acupuncture can give positive results to heartburn sufferers, in a gentle and non-invasive way.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC.