There is a ring of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter that is located at the top of the stomach and bottom of the esophagus. It is designed to open to allow food to pass into the stomach and close to prevent stomach contents from moving backwards.
GERD occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter fails to function properly. It may open too frequently or relax enough that stomach acid moves back into the esophagus and throat causing a burning sensation.
GERD ranges in severity depending on the underlying causes as well as how much acid comes back into the esophagus.
There are many factors that increase the likelihood of experiencing GERD, the most common include:
- Hiatal hernia
- Trigger foods, such as chocolate, caffeine and peppermint
Heartburn, or the burning sensation felt in one’s chest and throat, is the most common symptom of GERD. Other symptoms one may experience include:
- Feeling as though food is stuck in one’s throat
- Acidic taste in one’s mouth
GERD and Gluten Intolerance
For those who suffer from GERD, there are a number of lifestyle and dietary changes that are recommended to reduce symptoms. When discussing dietary restrictions or changes, one question that comes up frequently is the effect gluten has on GERD.
At this time, there has been no evidence that eating gluten causes GERD to occur. However, there are many studies that suggest that avoiding gluten, especially for those who are gluten-intolerant, can help reduce the symptoms one experiences from GERD.
If ingesting gluten seems to increase the severity of these symptoms, it is likely that one has a gluten-intolerance and the GERD symptoms are secondary. In these cases, avoiding gluten in one’s diet can have a positive effect on the symptoms.
If you suspect that gluten is having a negative impact on your digestion, including GERD symptoms, the most effective way to determine is by following an elimination diet. To do this, one needs to remove all gluten from one’s diet for a minimum of six weeks. This time frame will give your body a chance to adjust and it will become more obvious if gluten is causing a problem.
In order to remove all gluten products, one must avoid anything containing wheat, barley and rye grains. While most breads, pastas and processed foods contain these grains, there are still many options available. Try substituting a flour made from soy, buckwheat or quinoa.
Also, check your local supermarket to see what gluten-free products are available. There are been a strong push to carry an increased number of gluten-free products since this type of diet is gaining in popularity.
GERD and Celiac Disease
There is a strong link between those with celiac disease and GERD. Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder that affects an estimated 1 in 100 people worldwide. Celiac disease is when eating gluten causes damage to the small intestine due to an immune response one’s body has.
While celiac disease has nothing to do with GERD, the symptoms of each can sometimes overlap, leading to a misleading diagnosis. If one has celiac, they may experience GERD-like symptoms such as heartburn, vomiting and difficulty swallowing.
In a 2009 Italian study, researchers found that patients who were gluten-intolerant responded more favorably to medication used to treat GERD when following a strictly gluten free diet. Those who were gluten-free had fewer recurrences of GERD compared with the control group. The takeaway from this study was that for those with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet can help reduce GERD symptoms.
Another study compared 133 adults recently diagnoses with celiac disease with 70 non-celiac individuals as the control group. When diagnosed, more than 30% of those with celiac disease had moderate to severe GERD. Also 6% of the control group presented with GERD. Like the first study, the celiac patients saw a rapid improvement in their GERD symptoms once a gluten-free diet had been adopted.
Besides cutting gluten out of one’s diet, it is important to remove other foods and beverages that are considered triggers for GERD. The most common triggers include:
- Fatty foods
- Spicy foods
- Tomato based products
For those suffering from GERD, there are a number of other lifestyle changes that can be made to help reduce the severity of symptoms. These changes can positively impact all GERD patients, regardless of if celiac disease is also present. The most common recommendations include:
- Quit smoking
- Lose weight
- Wear loose fitting clothing
- Eat smaller meals
- Eat slower
- Raise the head of one’s bed 6 inches
- Wait 3 hours after eating before lying down
In severe cases of GERD, sometimes medication may also be required to treat the condition. There are a number of over the counter and prescription medications available that have promising results.
If one is experiencing symptoms of GERD, they should seek medical attention for a proper diagnosis and treatment recommendation. A physician can discuss the possibility of a gluten-sensitivity as well. The information provided here is meant to be informative and does not constitute medical advice in any way.