One More Reason to Fix That Heartburn
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is quite common in the United States. An estimated eighteen to twenty-eight percent of us suffer from it. Today we look at a possible link between GERD and cancers of the voice box and esophagus. Historical studies have hinted at an association, and now we have a new study that adds additional evidence.
GERD is a gut disorder that affects the ring of muscle (the lower esophageal sphincter) between your esophagus and stomach. If you have GERD, you may get heartburn, acid indigestion, a persistent cough, chest pain, or other symptoms. Some individuals have it because of a condition known as a hiatal hernia. Fortunately, dietary and lifestyle modifications can ease symptoms for most of us. Others may need medication or surgery.
A new study offers evidence of an association between GERD and cancers of the larynx (voicebox) and esophagus (food pipe). Historical studies have been inconsistent and often did not control potential confounders such as alcohol or tobacco use.
The researchers conducted a prospective study using data from the NIH‐AARP Diet and Health Study, which began in the 1990s, with questionnaires sent to the American Association of Retired Person members. The questionnaire queried the participants about various risk factors related to GERD, including alcohol use, tobacco, diet, body shape, and medical issues.
The researchers cross-checked this data with data from Medicare claims related to GERD. About 24 percent of the subjects had GERD. They then took state cancer registry data to see if the participants had developed cancer of the esophagus over the following 16 years.
Here are the disturbing results:
Those with GERD had double the risk of a type of lower esophagus cancer known as adenocarcinoma. What’s more, GERD appeared associated with a two-fold increase in the risk of developing cancer of the voice box (larynx) region or esophagus cancer not in the lower part of the structure. Overall, about 17 percent of these cancers were linked to GERD.
The study is imperfect. The researchers acknowledge that they estimated the presence of GERD based on medical claims. These may not capture folks who use over-the-counter medications for treatment. Also, the Medicare records were incomplete (many participants had no record of GERD), so the researchers extrapolated from the available information.
However, as the scientists note, their study has some limitations. For example, they estimated the presence of GERD based on medical claims, which may not account for people who treat their GERD with over-the-counter medicine.
Got GERD? What’s your action plan? You may wish to consider the following:
- Avoid being overweight
- Avoid smoking
- Watch out for certain foods that can relax the lower esophagus sphincter. Such foods include chocolate, fatty foods, peppermint, caffeine, and alcohol. Avoid foods and drinks that can irritate a damaged esophagus lining if they cause symptoms. Examples include tomato products, citrus fruits and juices, and pepper.
- Avoid large meals, and eat slowly.
- Don’t eat right before bedtime.
- Be careful with certain medications, including aspirin.
Of course, check in with a valued healthcare professional. Thank you for joining me today. Oh, one more thing:
Putting the head of your bed on six-inch blocks or sleeping on a specially designed wedge lets gravity reduce the backup of stomach contents into your esophagus. Propping yourself up with pillows usually doesn’t work well, as you put more pressure on the stomach.