If you’ve ever had acid reflux and heartburn, you know how painful it can be. It feels like the acid is eating you up from the inside…
Your chest hurts, it’s hard to swallow and there’s that unpleasant sour taste in the back of your throat.
All you can do is sit there in agony and wait for it to finally stop.
Maybe the worst thing about it is when you can no longer eat the foods you love… you just don’t know what may trigger another episode.
If acid reflux is an almost daily occurrence for you, you could be suffering from a condition called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD in short.
And if you’ve ever been diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, chances are you’ve had close encounters with this unpleasant ailment.
Data shows1 up to 75% of people with diabetes have some sort of gastrointestinal issue—with up2 to 24.9% or almost one in four people showing GERD symptoms.
But what is GERD and why is it so common in people with diabetes?
What Is GERD?
GERD happens when stomach acid starts bubbling up your esophagus—the tube connecting your mouth and stomach.
This backwash of acid erodes the lining of your esophagus, which results in pain in the chest known as ‘heartburn’. (Which by the way has nothing to do with the heart, as some wrongly believe.)
Now you may be wondering… how can you tell apart the rare acid reflux episode most people experience from GERD?
The short answer is—frequency.
GERD is chronic acid reflux. When acid reflux episodes happen at least twice per week, chances are you might be suffering from GERD.
Now let’s look at the real cause of acid reflux—and how we can prevent it.
What Causes GERD (And Why Diabetes Patients Often Have It)
Most people believe stress or spicy or fatty food causes acid reflux.
And while these factors can act as the triggers of this disease… we have to look at anatomy to understand where the acid reflux originates.
At the bottom of the esophagus, there are muscles forming a sphincter which acts as a ‘valve’ in the digestion process.
Every time you swallow something, it goes down your esophagus and this ‘valve’ relaxes to let it pass into the stomach… then it contracts again to prevent your stomach’s contents from travelling back up.
The problems start when the following happens:
- There’s an overproduction of acid in the stomach (often caused by some trigger)
- The ‘valve’ of your esophagus doesn’t contract as hard as it needs to seal the stomach.
As a result, acid easily finds its way up your esophagus… sometimes even reaching your throat (a condition called Laryngopharyngeal Reflux, or LPR.)
People with diabetes often have a weaker esophagus ‘valve’ because of nerve damage caused by diabetic neuropathy.
This makes them likelier to develop GERD than healthy individuals.
But how can you tell for sure you have GERD?
How GERD Manifests Itself In Your Body
These are the tell-tale signs you’re dealing with GERD:
- Burning pain in your chest (heartburn)
- Regurgitation of food or stomach acid
- Hard time swallowing
- Tremendous burping
- Feeling full or bloated without eating
- A feeling of a lump in your throat
- Sour taste at the back of your mouth
- Heart palpitations
- Disrupted sleep
When untreated, GERD can lead to more serious conditions.
This includes painful esophagus ulcers, esophagus strictures (scar tissue) that block food from entering the stomach, and even changes to the cells in your esophagus lining (a risk factor for esophageal cancer).
Reduce GERD Using These Simple Lifestyle Tweaks
When you go to the doctor, they may usually put you on one of the following medicines:
- Antacids, which help neutralize the hydrochloric acid in the stomach.
- Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs), which shut out the pumps of your stomach that produce excess acid while helping heal the damaged lining of the esophagus.
- H2 Receptor Blockers, which also reduce the amount of acid produced using a different mechanism of action.
While these medicines are effective, some people often report they alone don’t keep symptoms from coming back.
If you want to keep GERD under control when you also have diabetes, there are some lifestyle changes you can make to soothe your symptoms.
- Eat More Alkaline Foods
To avoid an overproduction of stomach acid, stick to alkaline foods with a high pH level.
This includes vegetables like green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, potatoes and leafy greens… whole grains like brown rice and oats… non-citrus fruits like melons, apples, and pears… lean meat like chicken breast, beef and fish… and healthy fats like almonds, walnuts and olive oil.
BONUS TIP: Try fennel and ginger. They are popular tummy soothers—unlike peppermint which can act as a trigger (more on that in a minute).
- Stay Away From Acidic Foods
Diabetes made you cut so many foods out of your diet.
And now we’re asking you to do the same again?
See, the good news is diabetes-friendly diets and GERD-friendly diets overlap in many areas.
All you need to do is flip the previous point on its head and steer clear of low pH foods.
The list includes garlic, onions, tomatoes, spicy food like hot peppers or curry, and fried or overly fatty foods. Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and grapefruit can also act as triggers.
- More ‘Grazing’, Less Feasting
What works for controlling blood sugar can work for GERD, too.
Try to eat your food in small portions 4 to 6 times per day—as opposed to shoveling huge volumes of food only a few times per day.
This is because when the stomach is full, it can push more acid up the esophagus.
- Do This to Your Coffee
It’s no secret that caffeine is highly acidic to your stomach.
But if taking away your morning cup is crossing the line, then there are still ways you can enjoy it while making it less acidic.
Go for a cold brew when possible. Cold water doesn’t extract the acids in the coffee bean as hot water does. Also consider adding some whole milk—the calcium in milk can neutralize the acid in coffee.
- Make Gravity Your Friend
Here’s a one-time hack that may solve nighttime acid reflux for you.
While lying in bed, prop yourself up in a way that your head level is above your legs. This makes it harder for the acid to travel up.
BONUS TIP: Sleeping on the left side of your stomach can reduce3 acid reflux symptoms by up to 71%. This works because the esophagus enters the right side of the stomach.
- Ditch Smoking
As if there weren’t enough health reasons to quit the ‘cancer sticks’.
Smoking has been shown to lower the pressure of your esophagus ‘valve’ and increase the likelihood of strain-induced reflux.
One study4 of 141 former smokers shows their GERD symptoms went down by 43.9% one year after quitting smoking.
- Be Wary of the Bubbles
It’s no secret that carbonated drinks cause your stomach to balloon.
As your stomach starts expanding thanks to the trapped gas, it causes pressure on your esophagus ‘valve’.
When the ‘valve’ cannot hold out for longer, it starts letting acid travel up your food tube.
- Chew This Type of Gum
Chewing gum makes more saliva, which helps neutralize the stomach acid.
However, it’s smart to avoid any gum with mint flavoring.
This is because, contrary to popular belief, peppermint and other mint plants don’t really soothe your stomach. Instead, they can trigger acid reflux by relaxing the ‘valve’ between the stomach and the esophagus.
Try mastic gum for a good, natural alternative. One study5 shows mastic gum cut dyspepsia (indigestion) and stomach pain in 77% of participants.
- Wear Looser Clothing
Wearing skin-tight clothes or tightening your belt too much creates abdominal pressure… And it’s this pressure that causes acid and undigested food to shoot upwards.
Another thing that creates this pressure is carrying large amounts of visceral fat hugging your organs.
This means dropping a few sizes and getting back into your old clothes can also help relieve GERD.
- Take It Easy
It’s no secret that stress isn’t good for your health… and that includes your GERD and heartburn symptoms.
A large Korean study6 of 6,834 subjects found a direct connection between GERD and high psychological stress.
GERD was found in 6% out of those people, with the majority of them being in the high-stress group.
The takeaway: Mind your mental health. Try some stress-reducing activities like yoga, meditation, or simply spending more time in nature.