Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), popularly known as “heartburn” or “indigestion”, refers to the stomach and esophagus. Reflux means to flow back or return. Therefore, gastroesophageal reflux is the return of the stomach’s contents back up into the esophagus. To put it bluntly, I like to think of GERD as your body’s way of rejecting whatever processed food-like substance that you have shoveled down your gullet in mass quantities. I once saw a bird in a park dining on a discarded Big Mac. It promptly vomited up its stomach contents. Smart bird! The point that I’m trying to get at is that popping a Tums or a PPI (Proton Pump Inhibitor) such as Prilosec when you have indigestion is not the solution. Doing so is an example of managing a problem upstream instead of downstream, i.e. treating a symptom instead of a cause. Additionally, PPIs come with a host of potentially serious side effects such as increased risk of Clostridium difficile infection in the colon, osteoporosis, vitamin B12 deficiency, toxic epidermal necrolysis (Don’t ask!), pancreatitis, reduced kidney function, and liver damage. So the next time that you pound down a plate of spicy wings washed down with a beer, please think twice before reaching for your Prilosec, and think twice about the foods that you consume for pleasure. I have always stared at people with compassionate disbelief when they tell me something such as “I have acid reflux”, as though it were something that they caught from getting sneezed on in a crowded elevator. GERD and indigestion, unless caused by a hiatal hernia, is entirely a symptom of our food and lifestyle choices. Let’s delve a little deeper into this horror show and a few of its lesser discussed permutations:
- GERD can often lead to esophageal cancer, so it’s not enough to just treat the symptoms of GERD by popping pills. It can and will kill you!
- GERD does not occur in older populations simply as a “normal” symptom of aging. The true etiology of this chronic condition is a result of decades of consuming nitrates in processed foods and not eating enough fruits and vegetables.
- Processed foods in general, especially those containing chemical additives, are a huge contributing factor in the development of GERD. We already know that excessive caffeine, chocolate, spicy food, alcohol, and carbonated drinks can cause GERD, but doctors and dieticians advising their patients/clients to just try and avoid the aforementioned foods is not enough. People need to be warned that pretty much anything that comes in a bag, a can, or a box, containing a list of unpronounceable ingredients, could also exacerbate GERD.
As with most so-called “diseases of aging”, GERD is really just a chronic condition falling under the umbrella of what I like to call “evolutionary mismatches“. Whenever we put anything into our bodies that we did not evolve to consume, the implications to our health are always disastrous. Try feeding a lion in a zoo nothing but Snickers bars for a month or two and see what happens to its health! Yet we humans have the arrogance to think that we can put anything we want into our bodies and get away with it unscathed. Seems to me, folks shouldn’t need a medical degree or a Master’s in Nutrition to comprehend a common sense approach to eating!