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GERD and Heartburn: What’s the Difference – and What Can I Do About It?

You know that telltale burning sensation in the back of your throat or chest… heartburn has reared its fiery head, and you need relief – fast!

But, there’s always the burning question of WHY did it start in the first place?

Let’s stoke the coals about WHAT heartburn is, what causes it and how to treat it – or better yet, how to prevent it from happening at all. 

But, first we should offer you a little lesson in terminology around this and other similar health conditions that can leave you feeling a little heated under the collar. 

ACID REFLUX refers to the backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus. A taste of regurgitated food or a sour-tasting liquid may be felt at the back of your mouth. You may also feel something likened to a burning sensation in your mid to upper chest, which is sometimes intense and is all-too-often mistaken for the pain of a heart attack. 

HEARTBURN is simply the more commonly used term and is synonymous with ‘acid reflux’. 

A term that is also used synonymously with ‘heartburn’ or ‘acid reflux, but is actually different, is INDIGESTION – also known as ‘dyspepsia’.

This actually refers to a whole host of symptoms (belching, gas, bloating, nausea) when a person is having difficulty digesting their food, but which is marked by persistent or recurrent pain in the upper abdomen and heartburn.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD, is a more severe and chronic (recurrent) form of acid reflux/heartburn. If you have symptoms of acid reflux more than twice a week, you might have GERD.

Signs & symptoms of GERD can include:

  • Frequent heartburn, which is characterized by a nagging burning sensation in the back of your throat and/or chest
  • Chest pain or discomfort, especially when lying down
  • Regurgitation of partially-digested food or sour liquid taste (from stomach contents)
  • Difficulty swallowing or the feeling of “something in your throat”
  • Coughing, persistent dry cough), and/or wheezing – which can lead to asthma
  • Throat-clearing and/or sore throat
  • Bad breath
  • Tooth enamel damage due to excess stomach acid in the mouth

What causes GERD symptoms?

A circular band of muscle at the end of your esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), when working properly, relaxes and opens when you swallow, and then tightens and closes again afterwards. 

However, in the case of acid reflux, your LES doesn’t tighten or close properly, allowing digestive juices and other stomach contents to flow backwards into your esophagus. (Yep, it’s exactly how it sounds – barfy!) 

Health conditions and risk factors that can exacerbate GERD symptoms: 

  • Pregnancy
  • Obesity
  • Anxiety
  • Hiatal hernia
  • IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
  • Smoker
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Taking medications such as: antihistamines, calcium channel blockers, pain-relieving medicines, sedatives, and antidepressants – that are known to weaken the LES

Tips for managing GERD and minimizing heartburn/acid reflux:

Your doctor may suggest that you take a medication like an antacid, proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) and/or an H2 receptor blocker, but these are often temporary fixes and can also have serious side effects. 

Here are 5 non-medication prevention tips that you can try to keep those fiery symptoms at bay: 

  1. Avoid tight clothing, especially where it may restrict your chest or abdomen.

  2. Production of stomach acid usually peaks about 3 hours after eating, so it’s best not to lay down during that time

→ Make lunch (midday meal) the focus of your day and have a smaller evening meal slightly earlier, i.e. not close to bedtime, and then avoid snacking before bedtime. 

  1. Learn what your specific trigger foods are. Foods that contribute to reflux can greatly differ for each individual, but common offenders that are known to stimulate excess stomach acid production and/or irritate the esophagus are:

→ fatty foods, spicy foods, chocolate, coffee, soda & colas, alcohol, onions, garlic, mint, pineapple, citrus fruit and tomatoes & tomato products

→ try removing 1-2 suspected trigger foods at a time until you find what works for you

  1. Stress makes reflux worse – as it does with many health conditions!

→ Practicing yoga, meditation or deep breathing exercises are some non-medical treatments for occasional reflux 

  1. If you’re carrying a few extra pounds above your ideal weight, losing even a small amount can reduce the frequency and intensity of GERD symptoms.

So, there you have it – five great tips for minimizing your risk of experiencing heartburn and of exacerbating GERD symptoms. 

In addition to those, we hope you’ll try our Heartburn Tamer Drink made with coconut water, that you can easily blend up when those telltale symptoms strike or if you’re chronically symptomatic.  

Did you know that unsweetened coconut water is a great option for people with acid reflux because it’s a good source of potassium, which is an electrolyte.  

And what do electrolytes do? They promote optimal pH balance in the body, which is key to managing acid reflux. 

Get the recipe:

RECIPE 

Heartburn Tamer Drink 

Ingredients 

¼ cup pure aloe vera juice (not the gel for sunburns!)

¼ cup coconut water, unsweetened

¼ cup cucumber, washed, peel left on

½ cup watermelon chunks, no rind, fresh or frozen*

¼ tsp turmeric 

Preparation 

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Add fresh, filtered water for desired thinness. Enjoy immediately. 

 * Note: using frozen watermelon chunks will change texture from juice-like to slushy-like  

REFERENCES 

Healthline – Everything You Need to Know About Acid Reflux and GERD

https://www.healthline.com/health/gerd

Healthline – What Are the Differences Between Heartburn, Acid Reflux, and GERD?

https://www.healthline.com/health/gerd/heartburn-vs-acid-reflux

Healthline – What To Drink for Acid Reflux

https://www.healthline.com/health/gerd/beverages