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What Causes Acid Reflux? Risk Factors and When to Visit Doctor

Pain or a burning sensation in the mouth of the abdomen is a common symptom among adults. We also call it acid reflux. In this article, we’ll explain what acid reflux is and what causes it.

The burning sensation in your stomach, which can sometimes spread to behind the sternum (the thorax bone found in front of the heart), may not always seem very bothersome. In any case, to solve this problem, you may need to make some changes to your lifestyle.

What is acid reflux?

The stomach is an organ that forms part of the superior digestive system. It is located in the abdomen, in the upper central zone. Above, we find the esophagus, and below is the small intestine.

The stomach’s function is to help breakdown food. The acid that it produces, called gastric acid, helps with the digestion of proteins and the absorption of iron, calcium, and vitamin B12. Furthermore, gastric acid kills a large part of the microorganisms we ingest and limits the growth of bacteria. This also helps to prevent intestinal infections.

If the stomach acid doesn’t continue toward the intestine and actually travels back toward the esophagus, we experience gastroesophageal reflux. At this point, we should clarify that, to a degree, this reflux is physiological. Such episodes usually happen after eating, are short, don’t cause symptoms, and rarely happen during sleep.

Alternatively, when the reflux does cause annoying symptoms or complications, it’s known as non-physiological gastroesophageal reflux. This is caused by acid reflux, or pyrosis, a burning sensation felt in the stomach region or behind the sternum.

How and why do we get acid reflux?

When we eat, food passes from the mouth, through the esophagus, and then toward the stomach. In the esophagus and stomach, there is a circular muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter. This helps to stop the contents of the stomach from returning to the mouth.

When for whatever reason, the acidic content of the stomach rises back up, beyond what we call physiological reflux, you may experience acid reflux or heartburn. The exact reasons why we experience acid reflux are still being studied.

There are diverse possible theories, like changes to the digestive tract’s movements, the body’s production of acid, our stress levels or diet, in addition to psychological and hereditary factors.

We must clarify that we’re not talking about defined diagnoses here, such as ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or gallstones. However, in each of these situations, you may also experience heartburn.

Risk factors and causes of acid reflux

As we have mentioned, specialists continue to study the causes of acid reflux. However, there are elements that we now know are ‘risk factors’. We should aim to avoid these when possible to reduce the risk of heartburn.

Diet is one of these factors. It can influence stomach acid levels in some people, especially when consuming certain products such as foods that are spicy, fried, high in fat, or citrus, items derived from tomatoes (like ketchup), mint, chocolate, carbonated drinks, or alcohol.

Being overweight is another factor that can increase the risk of suffering from acid reflux. During pregnancy, it’s common to experience it for a similar reason, since the uterus expands and pushes against the stomach, causing reflux due to changes in anatomy.

When to visit a doctor

Some cases require additional tests if you suspect the heartburn is caused by something specific. In such situations, it’s always best to visit a specialist to determine what these are.

It’s important to note that it would be cause for concern if a patient over 60 years old develops acid reflux and they hadn’t experienced it before. Even more alarming if the patient also experiences gastrointestinal bleeding (characterized by finding blood in vomit or stool).

Having a lack of appetite is another concerning factor, as well as an inexplicable loss of weight or difficulty swallowing. Sometimes the patient may also experience pain in their chest that isn’t related to any cardiovascular event but comes from the digestive system.

Additionally, if there’s a history of cancer in the person’s immediate family, if their parents, uncles, aunts, or grandparents have had experienced any form of cancer, it’s important to pay more attention if there are symptoms that suggest they’re experiencing acid reflux and visit a specialist fairly promptly.

What to do if you suffer from a cause of heartburn

For those that experience heartburn in the stomach or sternum, mildly and sporadically, there are some things that can help. Here are some steps that would be beneficial to follow, as they can help to improve the symptoms.

  • Lose weight in cases where the affected person is overweight.
  • Raise the head of the bed: This can be done by placing blocks of wood or rubber under two legs of the bed or a wedge under the mattress. Don’t use too many pillows as that can cause neck pain.
  • Avoid certain foods that worsen the symptoms: These include coffee, chocolate, alcohol, mint, or foods that are greasy, fried, spicy, or hot.
  • Quit smoking: Tobacco is a cause of heartburn.
  • Avoid eating too late: Going to bed with a full stomach can worsen the reflux. We should try to eat at least two to three hours before going to bed.

Specialists recommend that we don’t use over-the-counter antacids. It’s always best to visit a medical professional about complications like this. If your symptoms become more intense, appear during the night, or persist for a long amount of time, we suggest you visit a professional as soon as possible.

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