FOOD is such an integral part of Malaysian culture that it is difficult to imagine not having the privilege to enjoy the myriad of food available to us at any hour and anywhere. Yet, this is the reality for many Malaysians who suffer from GERD. Ever feel like the food you had just eaten not long ago coming back up your throat? Or do you often experience heartburn? If so, there is a chance that you have GERD. Known as gastro esophageal reflux disease, GERD is a digestive disorder that affects the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which lies between the esophagus and stomach. When we eat, the food travels down the esophagus into the stomach. At the bottom of the esophagus, just before the opening to the stomach, lies a circular tube of muscle known as LES. In normal cases, the LES opens to allow food to pass into the stomach and closes to prevent food and acidic stomach contents from flowing back into the esophagus. When the LES is damaged or weakened, it fails to close all the way, causing the acidic contents of the stomach to move back up (reflux) into the esophagus. This commonly causes a burning sensation in the chest known as heartburn. It can also cause difficulty in breathing or swallowing. SPREADING AWARENESS Recently, at a forum titled “Oh My GERD” hosted by Nuvanta, a provider of premium natural pharmaceutical and skincare brands, a panel of experts gathered with the aim of: ▶ discussing the GERD epidemic; and ▶ raising awareness on this serious condition. The panel of speakers comprised Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia consultant physician and gastroenterologist Dr Raja Affendi Raja Ali, gastroenterologist and naturopathic doctor Dr Vagif Soultanov and pharmacist and natural therapies advocate Datin Swanee Teh. The experts provided insights into the condition, namely how to recognise the signs and symptoms and how to manage the condition. AFFECTING QUALITY OF LIFE According to the latest data, GERD is growing in prevalence across Southeast Asia, with numbers rising 20%higher since 2005. What’s troubling is that many people are unaware they are suffering from GERD, often simply attributing symptoms to indigestion or due to eating spicy or acidic food. In reality, “GERD is a condition that worsens over time if left untreated, ” says Affendi. It also negatively impacts one’s quality of life. According to a 2004 study, GERD patients experience a poorer quality of life in terms of mental health, social function and vitality, when compared to the general population. A separate study showed that having GERD decreased work productivity, to a larger extent than someone afflicted by a chronic condition like arthritis. “Most people don’t expect the dramatic changes GERD causes in their lifestyles. GERD literally sucks all the fun out of life,” said Soultanov. Indeed, it expressly encroaches on life’s greatest pleasures where food enjoyment, restful sleep and meaningful work is concerned. WHAT IS THE CAUSE? The cause of GERD is complex and what prompts or induces it are many. It is very much an individualised condition, wherein different causes may affect different individuals. A contributing factor is said to be abnormality in the lower esophageal sphincter. Dietary and lifestyle choices also contribute to GERD. Too much of certain foods such as spicy and fatty food, or beverages like coffee or alcoholic drinks are also said to give rise to the problem. Stress is another, said to aggravate GERD. So is obesity because as weight accumulates in the belly area, it creates pressure on the diaphragm and LES, causing further weakening of the LES muscles. Smoking is another risk factor that leads to the onset of GERD as the nicotine in cigarettes causes relaxing effect on the LES, hence allowing stomach acid to escape into the esophagus. NATURAL TREATMENT A common treatment for GERD is via ingesting acid-blocking drugs known as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). However, PPIs are potent stomach acid suppressants and is not recommended for long-term use due to adverse side effects, such as risk of kidney failure. More importantly, it should be noted that PPIs do not cure the problem although it controls the symptoms. There are alternatives to PPIs that can see to the root of the problem. A naturopathic doctor and researcher, Soultanov, shared the results from a recent clinical study done on a pine conifer green needle extract called Bioeffective A and its effects on gastrointestinal health and GERD. “We know that Bioeffective A possesses cellular healing properties. In this study, we wanted to see the extent of its effects among patients with pre-cancerous stomach conditions who were also experiencing GERD. The administration of Bioeffective A resulted in a 92% improvement in dyseptic symptoms (GERD),including improvement in symptoms such as gastritis, gas and bowel disorders. Additionally, patients also regained normality of stomach function besides a reversal in pre-cancerous lesions,” Soultanov shared. Essentially, Bioeffective A helps to strengthen damaged or weakened esophageal valves, besides supporting and stabilising the digestive juices in the stomach. With this natural treatment that targets the root cause of GERD, patients should look into a diet and lifestyle change. According to Affendi, the key is to practise moderation, especially with the types and amount of food we eat. Some of the symptoms of GERD. ▶ Heartburn. ▶ Sour-tasting fluid at the back of the throat (stomach acid has a sourish taste). ▶ Difficulty swallowing or a sensation that something is stuck in the chest or throat. ▶ Gas build-up. ▶ Excessive belching. ▶ Chronic dry cough or breathlessness. ▶ Bad breath.