GERD is a Common, Uncomfortable Condition, But Eastern Medicine Can Help
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is widespread throughout the U.S., with about 20 percent of Americans experiencing symptoms. GERD is often manageable with lifestyle changes, but severe cases can be difficult to treat without medical support. And severe cases can have a negative effect on quality of life. There are medications that can help, but they don’t come without their own risks.
Eastern therapies – acupuncture and herbal treatments included – are another option gaining in popularity among GERD patients. There is medical research to back this approach, for both acupuncture and herbal therapy. As such, many acupuncturists will combine the two for greater efficacy.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of GERD?
GERD is the result of gastric fluids flowing from the stomach into the esophagus. Normally, the esophageal sphincter – a band of muscle at the top of the stomach – keeps this from happening. In many people, though, additional factors may reduce the sphincter’s ability to do so.
The result is irritation and eventual damage to the tissues lining the esophagus. This can give rise to several symptoms, including:
- Chest and upper abdominal pains
- Issues with swallowing
- Dental problems
In some people, chest pains may be severe enough that they may feel like cardiac problems. Doctors can rule out cardiac concerns through testing, ensuring a proper GERD diagnosis is made.
If left untreated, GERD can lead to additional complications, including Barrett’s esophagus – a condition characterized by abnormal tissue growth in the esophagus. If the esophageal lining is damaged, the tissue that replaces it bears resemblance to intestinal tissue. This is more likely to become cancerous with time, so GERD can be a long-term cancer risk.
A Few Lifestyle Changes May Help Control or Resolve GERD Symptoms
While GERD can be managed with medication, your doctor will likely first recommend some lifestyle changes. Some of those recommended lifestyle changes include:
- For obese patients, losing weight is one of the most effective ways to reduce GERD symptoms.
- Getting enough sleep and elevating the head during sleep. This approach uses gravity to keep gastric fluids in the stomach.
- Reducing alcohol consumption and smoking.
- Avoiding significant meals within three hours of bedtime.
- Avoiding certain foods, including fried, fast, fatty, and spicy foods.
- Reviewing the use of any medications that may be causing GERD.
Some of these changes are easier to make than others, but with healthier decisions, many people can resolve their GERD (or at least reduce their symptoms).
What Medications Are Available for GERD?
If GERD is persistent and causing significant discomfort, there are medications that can help. They include:
- Antacids – Antacids are recommended for mild to moderate GERD and work by neutralizing excessive acids in the stomach. You’ve probably heard of Tums and Rolaids – two popular antacid brands. These are available over the counter and can provide immediate, short-term relief.
Antacids are not recommended for long-term use, however. If your GERD persists even with the occasional antacid, alternative medications or treatment options may be required.
- Histamine-2 blockers – Histamine-2 blockers work by binding to parietal cells in the GI tract – specifically, their histamine receptors. This prevents histamine from binding to the parietal cells and stimulating the cells into producing gastric acids.
Popular histamine-2 blockers include Pepcid and Zantac, among others. They’re considered generally safe for GERD that does not respond to lifestyle changes, but severe cases may not respond to histamine-2 blockers.
- Proton pump inhibitors – Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are reserved for severe, intractable GERD that also presents with tissue damage or stricture. A couple of well-known brands include Nexium and Prilosec, and they work by interfering with an enzyme (H+/K+ ATPase) that’s necessary for gastric acid production.
Short-term, proton pump inhibitors have a generally safe profile. However, there are significant concerns with long-term use (longer than a year). Long-term use of PPIs may increase the likelihood of certain infections, reduce vitamin B12 absorption and reduce calcium absorption. As such, doctors try to avoid putting their patients on PPIs for extended periods of time.
How Acupuncture and Herbal Therapies Can Improve GERD in Patients
Medications can help many people suffering from GERD, but side effects and inadequate efficacy are driving many others to consider additional treatment options. Eastern therapies, including acupuncture and herbal therapy, are among them.
How can acupuncture and herbal therapies help with GERD? There are a few pieces of medical research that offer some ideas. That research includes:
- A 2021 review published in Front Neuroscience. This review considered seven studies and more than 10,000 patients. The review team found that acupuncture could be an effective means of supporting GERD patients, specifically because acupuncture may regulate some of the neurological pathways that give rise to GERD.
- A 2018 meta-analysis that considered 12 trials and 1,235 patients. This meta-analysis found that acupuncture was more effective than drug therapy for treating GERD. Further, recurrence rates were lower in the acupuncture group.
Acupuncture has several system-level effects on the body that may help with GERD symptoms. They include:
- Improving GI motility
- Improving neurological signaling in the gut-brain axis
- Reduction of visceral pain
- Reduction of inflammation
- Gut microbiota support
All of these can help patients in their fight against GERD. Herbal therapies can also help, as many eastern botanicals are used for treating GI symptoms. Certified eastern medicine practitioners are experts in mixing and dosing these beneficial botanicals for optimal efficacy and minimal side effects.
For Persistent GERD, Eastern Medicine May Offer Solutions
For millions of Americans, GERD is a frequent source of discomfort and a potential risk factor for future health problems. Lifestyle changes and medications can make a difference, but for those who need additional support, acupuncture and eastern herbal therapies may be an option.