Got Heartburn/GERD? Learn to Deep Breathe

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Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) involves the movement of stomach contents from the stomach back into the esophagus resulting in the pain we know as heartburn. At the bottom of the esophagus is the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a ring of muscle that functions as a valve which closes after food passes through the esophagus. Dysfunction of the LES—specifically, the inability of the LES to close properly—is considered to occur in the majority of GERD patients.

(As an aside, let’s consider this last statement. Most people think heartburn/GERD is caused by too much stomach acid. This is simply not true. It’s the LES dysfunction that’s the problem. We need our stomach acid.)

At the location of the LES, or where the esophagus meets the stomach, the esophagus passes through a hole in the diaphragm, the large muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers from Austria had the insight to test a certain breathing technique that utilizes the movement of the diaphragm on symptoms in GERD patients.

The breathing technique is essentially diaphragmatic breathing, also known as abdominal breathing, a form of breathing used by singers and yoga practitioners. It involves the movement of the diaphragm downward upon inhalation, which has the effect of expanding the belly, and movement of the diaphragm back up upon exhalation, which has the effect of bringing the belly back in. This is compared to thoracic breathing (the way in which most people normally breathe), in which the chest expands and contracts upon inhalation and exhalation, the belly not being involved at all.

Patients with non-erosive reflux disease—a form of GERD in which the esophagus is not damaged yet symptoms persist—who performed the breathing exercises six days per week for at least 30 minutes for at least nine months experienced improvement in symptoms and, importantly, decreased usage of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) to one third the original dosage. Researchers stated, “This drug usage reduction could result in a substantial economic advantage for our health-care system. Because abdominal breathing exercises likely reduce PPI consumption, this non-pharmacological intervention could be considered in patients who are concerned about long-term drug use and its complications.”

If you are not familiar with abdominal breathing, it’s time to learn. Even if you don’t have heartburn or GERD, this style of breathing helps to reduce stress. Everyone could potentially benefit from this breathing technique.

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