Laura Crump 

The Silhouette

Stomach aches, difficulty swallowing, nausea and chest pain are just a few of the symptoms for what has become a growing problem in Canada.

Acid reflux, a disease in which gastric acid rises from the stomach and damages the esophagus, affects as many as 20 million Canadians, according to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation.

Persistent symptoms can lead to heartburn, nausea and, in the most extreme cases, esophageal cancer, Barrett’s esophagus, ulcers and other serious digestive complications.

Acid reflux, which often manifests itself as heartburn, is usually thought to only affect middle-aged people. However, recent studies have shown that as many as one in ten people under the age of twenty-five have experienced acid reflux, and this number is rising.

It can be caused by several factors, the most common being abnormal relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which is meant to prevent acid in the stomach from leaving.

The problem is usually caused by genetics, but can be exacerbated by eating, sleeping and exercising habits.

Signs of acid reflux include burning in the chest or throat, or stomach and chest pain, trouble swallowing, unexplained coughing and sore throat. But, it can often be treated by simple lifestyle changes. These include losing excess weight, eating several smaller meals rather than a few large ones, raising the head of your bed and not lying down for three hours after a meal.

Doctors also recommend removing chocolate, coffee, fatty foods and peppermint from your diet, limiting your alcohol intake and not smoking.

If those changes do not work, you can also purchase antacids and most histamine blockers without a prescription. Though both only work for short amounts of time, they can relieve mild symptoms by reducing or blocking the amount of stomach acid in the esophagus.

If your symptoms persist or occur on a regular basis, the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation suggests you consult a physician, as this may be sign of a chronic condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Other symptoms of GERD include vomiting blood, unexplained choking and sudden weight loss.

Your physician will be able to outline the best treatment plan for you, which may involve taking proton pump inhibitors or over the counter histamine blockers, and possibly even having surgery.

While occasional heart burn may not seem like something to be concerned about, experts stress that it is important to be aware of the risks and to seek professional aid if your symptoms worsen.

“Digestive health is not something to be brave about,” says Robert Boyd, a 40 year-old Timmins, Ontario native. He was only twenty when he first started exhibiting signs of GERD.

What began as occasional heartburn evolved into sharp chest pains and regular coughing fits that would wake him up in the night.

When he eventually made an appointment with his doctor, he found that he already had precancerous cells in his esophagus and had been putting himself at risk of developing several serious complications.

His doctor explained that acid reflux can, over time, damage the lining of the esophagus and often leads to ulcers, strictures, serious lung and throat problems, as well as Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer.

Several years later, Boyd has adapted his lifestyle to accommodate his disease and urges others to seek professional help if they have severe symptoms.

“There are treatments available to take away the pain and discomfort,” says Boyd. “There’s no need to put up with it.”

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