By Robert Branch L.Ac.
You’ve probably felt heartburn at some point in your life, maybe after a particularly spicy dinner or a night out at a bar. For some this can be a mild annoyance; for others it can be a regular and potentially dangerous occurrence. While this doesn’t mean you should run to WebMD in a panic every time you have heartburn, it is a good idea to understand what GERD - Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease – looks like, and how it can be treated.
GERD is a condition where acid from the stomach flows back into the esophagus – the tube connecting your mouth and stomach – thereby irritating the lining of the esophagus. Symptoms of GERD include heartburn, a sore or hoarse throat, difficulty swallowing, chest pain, coughing, regurgitation, and the feeling of food caught in the back of your throat.
There are several types of GERD, escalating in level of seriousness. Mild GERD occurs once or twice a month, and is easily treated with over-the-counter medications, while moderate GERD is heartburn that is frequent enough to require prescription medication. After these two comes severe GERD, which entails painful symptoms that are untreatable by medications and may require surgical intervention. Finally, there is precancerous GERD. This occurs when, after several years of untreated severe GERD, lesions form that can cause Barrett's esophagus. This is a precancerous condition which, if left untreated, can lead to esophageal cancer. In western medicine, mild conditions can generally be treated easily with OTC medications, while moderate to severe cases require prescription medication and potentially even surgical intervention.
From a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) perspective, GERD is caused by rebellious stomach qi, stomach fire, and stomach cold or dampness. Each of these can result from dietary, digestive, or stressful conditions; anxiety, in particular, can cause acid reflux and other digestive issues (so don’t stress about your GERD!). When treating GERD, TCM focuses on the stomach, its channel, and the Ren channel in order to settle digestion and reduce rebellious Qi. Moxa or warming herbs can treat cold and damp issues, and acupuncture is used to address the stomach, using points on the stomach and Ren channels to quell upward-rising Qi to reduce heat and fire.
There are also lifestyle changes that can help with GERD. If you’re experiencing symptoms, you should reduce your intake of fried, fatty or spicy foods, reduce stress, avoid eating large meals at night, give up smoking, and limit alcohol intake. Stress management techniques such as yoga, tai chi, qi gong and meditation can help, as well as healthy diet choices that have varying energetics and temperatures to harmonize and balance the body. While western medicine treatments focus on the symptoms, TCM focuses on the causes, and looks to address the roots of the issue. At ORA, we consider the whole person, including their current lifestyle, and use all available acupuncture tools and herbal remedies to treat the underlying cause of GERD.
Acid reflux is a slightly annoying and unpleasant feeling to deal with – and if you only have mild GERD, you will likely take an antacid and move on with your day. If you’re dealing with a more prevalent or severe case, though, consider using TCM to address the root causes and work towards a situation, and make sure that GERD never becomes something you need to truly w