The digestive system is truly magnificent. It is self containing, self regulating, and ensures that all nutrients get to where they need to go. In a perfect world, it is like a city’s traffic system. This intricate system enthralls gastroenterolists with the true majesty that is the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine.
Together, this superhero team ensures that we have enough nutrients to make the rest of us tic. It is a highly regulated system with stoplights at each of the sections (called sphincters) that regulate when the food can move from one section to the next.
When a sphincter is closed, food cannot go back to where it came from; it can only advance. Sphincters are circular muscles that clinch around the tube, but sometimes these muscles lose their tone and no longer regulate traffic. What happens is a three-course pile-up right into your esophagus.
That’s what acid reflux is. It’s also called heartburn, but has nothing to do with your heart and it certainly doesn’t mean any part of your insides is actually on fire. But it does feel pretty nasty. Once food enters your stomach and mixes with the bile, it acidifies quickly. This is normal, but when the lower esophageal sphincter fails, the bile and that three-course meal no longer want to stay put. They move upward and the acid burns the esophagus, leaving you writhing in pain, not unlike the paperwork that comes with a three-car pileup.
Fear not, now that you understand the source, you can learn to fight it. Consider some simple logistics. First, sitting perfectly upright, or even slightly forward, keeps gravity on your side. Second, eating slowly lets some food digest before your stomach can fill up and backup into the esophagus.
If you get acid reflux as you’re trying to fall asleep, it could be because you ate a late meal and it hasn’t finished digesting. Laying down allows the stomach contents to rush up the esophagus, instead of down through the intestines. If this is what plagues you, try eating an earlier meal, or eating a slower meal.
Sometimes, people turn to medicine to fix the problem right away, like a Tums or Alka-seltzer. While this is a temporary relief, it is not a permanent solution. Try implementing lifestyle changes, and don’t give up if they don’t work right away. It took years for your body to develop acid reflux, and it could take some investment to train your body the correct way to behave. Think of guiding your digestive system like drivers ed class, but with delicious food instead of parallel parking.