Acid reflux symptoms and definition

Acid reflux is a digestive disorder where stomach acid leaks up into the esophagus rather than staying down in the stomach where it belongs.

The symptoms are many and varied but commonly include chest pains and burning sensations radiating from the stomach up to the breastbone and throat, especially after eating.

Acid reflux can also disturb your sleep, make eating certain foods difficult, and cause regurgitation, bloating, nausea, and digestive discomfort.

Some people experience a sour or bitter taste in the back of their throats or even mouth and burning in the throat. Others may feel the sensation of something stuck in their throat and have problems swallowing.

The medical definition of the word reflux is: “The flow of a fluid through a vessel or valve in the body in a direction opposite to normal.”

The fluid in question here is HCI (hydrochloric acid) and the valve is the LES (lower esophageal sphincter), a ring of muscle located at the entrance to the stomach.

The LES is a one-way valve, designed to open for the passage of food from the bottom of the esophagus into the stomach. It is supposed to shut immediately after food has entered the stomach but in acid reflux, it either stays open too long or only partially closes, allowing gastric contents to spill out into the esophagus, causing that nasty sensation known as heartburn.

If this becomes chronic, it’s referred to as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

How Acid is Your Stomach?

There are specialized cells in the stomach that secrete acidic gastric fluid on a daily basis, something in the order of two to three liters (8-12 cups) a day.

On the pH scale, stomach acid is between 1.5 and 3.5, making it a very strong acid. To put this into perspective, sulfuric acid has a pH of 1 to 6.9, depending on how concentrated it is.

Hydrochloric acid is essential for keeping the stomach in the optimal pH range where it functions best, which is between 1.5 and 2.2 . At this level, food can be broken down and digested efficiently, nutrients like ascorbic acid and beta-carotene can be absorbed, pathogens can be managed and pepsinogen can be converted into the digestive enzyme pepsin necessary for breaking down protein.

Just as there are acid-producing cells in the stomach, there are also epithelial cells that produce mucus and bicarbonate, creating a neutral pH mucus-bicarbonate barrier that protects the stomach lining.

It’s an elegant arrangement with all sorts of checks and balances but the tissues of the esophagus do not enjoy the same level of protection. They are far more delicate and can become irritated and inflamed when they repeatedly come into contact with the corrosive secretions from the stomach, which is why acid reflux hurts.

The occasional bit of acid hitting the esophagus is uncomfortable but won’t cause any long-term damage and in fact most people get acid reflux from time to time.

Unchecked esophageal inflammation caused by frequent acidic assaults, however, can cause the esophagus to swell. This means not only pain from the stomach end when more acid hits the lower end of the esophagus but also pain from the top end from food traveling down and therefore trouble swallowing that food.

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