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Why do I have acid reflux? That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? If you’re like me then you’ve probably laid awake at night burping up acid and asking yourself “Why me? What did I do wrong?”. First off, know that you’re not alone. Almost 20% of Americans deal with mild to severe acid reflux symptoms. While understanding what triggers these episodes is pretty straightforward, unfortunately, understanding why we get it isn’t so simple.
Ok, I know many of you have done a lot of research and been through a lot to understand what’s been happening, but for those of you new to the wonderful world of reflux, here’s a short lesson: Your stomach is a big bubbling vat of acid. That’s a good thing! You need that acid to break down food and begin absorbing the nutrients you need. So far, so good. Now, your stomach lives on one side of the diaphragm and your esophagus runs through a hole in the diaphragm, called the hiatus and attaches to the stomach. Right at that attachment point is a deeply important (and complicated) little valve called the Lower Esophageal Sphincter. We’ll call him LES.
This guy has two jobs:
1. Open up to let food enter the stomach and
2. Close up really tight to keep stomach acid out of the esophagus.
Usually he’s pretty good at the first job, but for some of us he STINKS at the second one. Something happens: eat a greasy piece of pizza, drink a cup of coffee, lay down, sit down, and all of a sudden the acid in your stomach backs up (refluxes) into your esophagus causing any number of nasty symptoms. Chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, sore throat and lots more are all signs of acid reflux and they all come back to LES laying down on the job. That slacker.
So, the real question of “why” with acid reflux is this: why does your Lower Esophageal Sphincter not close like it should? Again, there are no easy answers here, and lots of possibilities, so here are a few:
1. Certain food types cause your LES to relax. Yep, it’s true and it stinks. Coffee, soda, citrus, tomatoes, fatty foods and chocolate (everything good, basically) can all cause the LES to relax and result in acid backing up.
2. Certain medications actually irritate the lining of your esophagus causing inflammation and triggering heartburn symptoms.
3. A Hiatal hernia. A hiatal hernia happens when a portion of your stomach slips up through the hiatus into your chest cavity. It sounds super scary but something like 30% of Americans have hiatal hernias and most don’t even know it. For many people it’s not a big deal, but for some the pressure of the herniated stomach keeps the LES partially open, allowing acid to reflux. Not fun.
One more important thing that I bet you guys have experienced: Once you start getting reflux it’s really hard to stop. This seems like a no-brainer, but let’s think about why that is. Look down at your bicep and flex. (Impressive? Mine, either.) That muscle just contracted and tightened just like it should. Congrats! Now, imagine you went to the beach, forgot to put sunscreen on that arm and it got the worst sunburn of your life. Imagine having to flex that red, blistered, sore bicep muscle. Think it would hurt? Think you would be able to flex it as tight as usual? I doubt it.
This same principle applies to your Lower Esophageal Sphincter. Once that muscle starts getting “burnt” by your stomach acid its ability to contract tightly has been compromised. Just like your sunburned arm, your LES is inflamed and raw and just can’t close with the strength it needs to in order to keep out acid.
So, what’s the answer? As many of you know, there’s not an easy one and it’s different for everyone. Diet and lifestyle changes, natural supplements, home remedies, even yoga and breathing exercises. There are a lot of different things to learn and try and we want to help you along in that journey.
Here’s what I believe: acid reflux is healable. Yes, it takes work and patience and consistency, but we’ve seen the proof. Many people have taken responsibility for their healing and changed their story. You can too!
All the best friends, Dane
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