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GERD, Reflux, Indigestion: Are there differences?

Tips for how to make the switch to alternative treatments

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Yes. Strictly speaking, the terms GERD, reflux, and indigestion are different from each other. Though they do share some similarities, and some people (and even doctors) refer to them interchangeably.

  • GERD. GERD stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease. It’s a medical term that refers to a specific disease entity. Your stomach has a valve at its entrance. It opens and closes when the food you eat passes through it. Sometimes, this valve is unable to perform its function well, and stomach acid gets into your esophagus. When stomach acid gets into the esophagus frequently, it produces a symptom described as burning chest pain or simply heartburn. We have a separate article on stomach acid you might want to read here. GERD is also known as acid reflux disease.

    There are several options for the treatment of GERD. Diet and lifestyle modifications are the first-line of treatment followed by oral medications. Oral medications include antacids, proton pump inhibitors, and H2 blockers. Persistent GERD may lead to complications which require additional forms of treatment. Prolonged intake of oral medications can produce a lot of side effects (see below).

  • Reflux. The term reflux can mean GERD or acid reflux disease among medical professionals. But when it comes to the general population, people may mean the actual symptom which is heartburn or burning chest pain caused by the presence of stomach acid in the esophagus. If you experience reflux more than twice a week, you may have GERD or acid reflux disease. Treatment for reflux when it happens more than twice a week is the same as for GERD. We have a separate article specifically for heartburn you might want to read here.

  • Indigestion. This is a more common term used by the general population. Indigestion is a symptom of a medical condition in your stomach which could be GERD. Other causes of indigestion include stomach ulcers or gallbladder problems. Indigestion may be further described as a feeling of fullness in your stomach, belching, or flatulence (passing wind). Dyspepsia is the medical term for indigestion. The treatment for indigestion will depend on its underlying cause.

In short, GERD is the disease, reflux is a symptom of GERD, and indigestion may be a symptom of GERD or another digestive disorder.

Consequences of Prolonged Intake of Oral Medications for GERD or Acid Reflux Disease

Oral Medication Long-term Consequences/Side Effects
  • Interferes with the absorption of many nutrients when taken together.
Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs)
  • Increased risk of acute myocardial infarction (heart attack), fractures, chronic diarrhea and intestinal infections.
  • Reduction in nutrient absorption (in your small intestines) especially magnesium, vitamin B12, calcium, and iron which could lead to deficiencies.
  • Interferes with the absorption of your other medications.
H2 Blockers
  • Increased risk of intestinal infections.
  • Can interact with the metabolism (liver) of other drugs you’re taking.
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Note: All three types of medications lead to an imbalance in digestive enzyme secretions.

Alternative Forms of Treatment – How to Make the Switch

Stomach acid secretion declines with age. Taking acid suppressing drugs for a prolonged period significantly contributes to decreased stomach acid secretion. Unfortunately, you still need stomach acid.
Here are our recommendations for how to make the switch to alternative and natural forms of treatment:

  1. Make the switch gradually over a period of 2-4 weeks BEFORE stopping completely. This method applies to the PPIs and H2 blockers. If you’re taking a pill twice a day, decrease it to once a day. Do that for one week. For the next week, take the pill every other day and so on and so forth. While doing this method, observe what happens to your symptoms. If tapering off over 2-4 weeks seems to be too fast for you, try 4-8 weeks. If you experience symptoms in between tapering, try an antacid. Among the three types of meds for GERD, an antacid is the least toxic to your system. Or try one of the suggestions from the alternative treatments below.

  2. Making the switch is best accomplished when you make significant adjustments in your diet and lifestyle like the following:
    • Avoid these foods: spicy foods, carbonated drinks, coffee (yes, that includes decaffeinated), citrus fruits, chocolate, and alcohol.
    • Stop smoking!!!
    • Watch that weight by exercising regularly and eating smaller, more frequent meals.
    • Try not to lie down within three hours after eating a meal.

  3. Alternative treatments include:

    • Natural Betaine HCL supplements restore your stomach’s acidic environment. Click here for more information regarding this supplement.
    • Digestive enzymes help to break down your food more effectively so that you can absorb the maximum level of nutrients. Digestive enzyme insufficiency can be a contributing factor to the development of acid reflux and indigestion.
    • Herbal digestive aids like peppermint, slippery elm, chamomile, and herbal bitters. These digestive aids activate the secretion of digestive enzymes from your mouth to small intestines. Bitters also stimulate the secretion of digestive juices and bile to support healthy digestion.
    • Probiotics. Restore the balance of helpful microorganisms in your digestive tract with probiotics. Also works well for gas and bloating.

  4. Lastly, discuss with your doctor that you’re trying to make the switch.

The Bottom Line

Make sure you understand what you’re referring to when using the terms GERD, reflux, and indigestion.
There are a few differences between the three terms. Also, be familiar with long-term consequences of taking medications for these conditions. These conditions if left untreated for a long period can produce serious complications. Making the switch to alternative treatment is possible, but do it gradually with the help of your healthcare practitioner.

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