Whilst the occasional bout of heartburn is quite normal and nothing to be stressed about, persistent acid reflux is not a benign condition.
Acid reflux signals that something is awry in your digestive system. It is a symptom of a much bigger issue than the discomfort of acid seeping into the esophagus.
If the esophagus is persistently exposed to the acid secretions that rightly belong only in the stomach, several unpleasant and even deadly consequences can transpire. If this continues long-term, more pain ensues and cancer can be the ultimate result.
One of the most common problems is esophagitis or inflammation of the esophagus. This inflammation can cause swelling, which narrows the passage through which food has to pass. This is known as stricture or stenosis. Obviously, a tighter passage is going to make swallowing not only painful but difficult and can interfere with sleep and quality of life.
Sometimes, ulcers develop in the esophagus, a condition known as erosive esophagitis. These ulcers are prone to bleeding – bloody stools may indicate that this is happening. The loss of blood can lead to the development of anemia.
Long-term reflux can affect the larynx, causing laryngeal ulcers or granulomas and vocal cord scarring. Acid can also be aspirated into the lungs. “The acid can cause throat irritation, postnasal drip and hoarseness, as well as recurrent cough, chest congestion and lung inflammation leading to asthma and/or bronchitis/ pneumonia.”
A serious long-term complication of acid reflux is Barrett’s esophagus where abnormal cells develop in response to acid insult. Esophagitis and Barrett’s esophagus are both associated with a higher risk of cancer of the esophagus and throat and Barrett’s is considered to be a precancerous condition.
“As the rate of acid reflux has risen steadily over the past decade, so have related complications. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2017, nearly 17,000 new cases of esophageal cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. and almost 16,000 Americans died of the disease.”
The statistics are grim: “The lifetime risk of esophageal cancer in the United States is about 1 in 132 in men and about 1 in 455 in women.”
Adenocarcinoma, cancer that starts in the glands and spreads to other areas of the body, is “a rare but life-threatening complication of GERD.”
The Bottom Line
The biggest danger of persistent acid reflux is the lack of awareness that hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid) could be underpinning it. This means that sufferers do not try to address the root cause and instead try to neutralize or block acid production with OTC medication or eventually succumb to prescription medication like PPIs, which only aggravate matters.
In a 2016 paper entitled Implications of Low Stomach Acid: An Update, the authors state: “a number of chronic health conditions are correlated with impaired acid secretion, including allergies, asthma and gallstones.”
Some of the others listed are: Addison’s disease, celiac disease, osteoporosis, pernicious anemia, chronic autoimmune disorders, diabetes, food allergies, vitiligo, Graves’s disease, MS, and rheumatoid arthritis.