Leave the heat outside this summer. Kamala Thiagarajan shares a few tips to get the better of acidity

Acid reflux and excessive acidity in the stomach is a fairly common and widespread problem that many of us are resigned to live with on a daily basis. Apart from causing pain and poor digestion, long-term acidity can lead to several other health complications, not the least of which are painful sores in the internal lining of the stomach called peptic ulcers. Understanding what causes these bouts of acidity and altering your lifestyle accordingly can go a long way towards putting your stomach at peace and restoring your health.

Lifestyle Triggers

“Acidity occurs in the stomach and in the first part of the small intestine called the duodenum. We know after every meal, our stomach produces Hydrochloric acid in order to digest the food we eat. Our stomachs are lined with a protective mucous membrane that prevents this acid from injuring the walls of the stomach. However, when this membrane is damaged, the acid will affect the stomach cavity and ulcers can result,” explains Dr AR Nitin Rao, consultant surgical gastroenterologist , MS Ramaiah Memorial Hospital, Bangalore. “There can be many reasons for this damage. In most cases, our lifestyles are to blame. Eating oily, spicy food regularly, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, excessive consumption (more than two cups a day) of beverages such as tea or coffee, untimely meals and long periods of starvation in which the stomach is literally empty—all this can greatly damage the stomach mucosa.”

Take that test

Another cause of acidity (that can sometimes lead to the more severe peptic ulcer) is the presence of bacteria called Helicobacter Pylori. If you've suffered from unabated acidity over a long period of time and the condition still hasn't become better in spite of the fact that you lead a healthy lifestyle, if you're prone to nausea and intense stomach pain during these attacks, Dr Rao recommends a stomach biopsy. When a biopsy is performed, a small sample is taken from the lining of the stomach and small intestine during an endoscopy. Though this test isn't as invasive as surgery, an endoscopy can be uncomfortable. Your gastroenterologist will ask that you swallow a thin, narrow tube that is attached to a minute video camera device at one end and a lens at the other, thereby allowing your doctor to view the picture on screen. It's rather like telecasting live the damage done to your insides and is also used to establish the presence of an ulcer. “It's the only effective way to determine whether you're affected by this bacteria that thrives in acid,” Dr Rao says.

A Urea breath test (much like the one given by traffic cops to check if someone has consumed too much alcohol) is another diagnostic option that's less invasive. However the breath test isn't always available nor as reliable. Stools and blood can also be tested to check for H. Pylori. Many people contract the acidity inducing H. Pylori infection at a young age, but the symptoms often show up only in adulthood. The good news is that the treatment is simple and effective. “Administering antibiotics over a period of time will help clear the infection and you'll have immense relief,” says Dr Rao.

Stop popping pills

If you're like most people who suffer from painful acidity, you probably reach out for that bottle of antacid or those easy to pop over-the-counter drugs in order to control the burn that's raging in your belly. These reduce the acid secretion in the stomach, so you may be tempted to take it often. However, experts feel that this is a quick-fix at best. You're only treating the symptoms temporarily and in the long-run, PPI's can harm the system. “If taken regularly for a period of over three years, PPI's can weaken the bones in both men and women,” says Dr Rao. A pre-cursor of the dreaded bone brittling disease osteoporosis, it can leave you prone to multiple fractures. If you need to soothe the stomach quickly, Tuticorin based dietician Dr Rajni Bafna Tatia suggests an age-old home remedy: tender coconut water. “Coconut water is composed of many naturally occurring bioactive enzymes, as well as minerals like calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, and zinc. Altogether, it aids in digestion and metabolism,” she says.

Heal the Hurt

You may be glad to learn that the stomach mucous can repair itself —it is possible to heal the hurt that you have unknowingly inflicted on it. If an unhealthy lifestyle is causing your burn, throw away the antacids as well as the bad habits that are making you sick. Limiting your consumption of tea and coffee and ensuring that you don't smoke (either actively or passively) can help. “Smoking not only damages the stomach mucosa, it can also prevent it from healing,” says Dr Rao. “Coffee and tea are also the worst offenders, especially when people drink these beverages at odd times and while skipping meals. The best way to deal with acidity is to ensure that you eat mini-meals or healthy, nutritious snacks every two-three hours.” Instead of large meals taken at one sitting, these snacks taken at regular timings will not only keep your energy up, it will also aid digestion and control excessive acid production. Even if you tend to work late into the night or do the night shift, having healthy snacks handy will ensure the burn is kept at bay. Consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables and fresh fruit juices (not the pre-packaged tetrapacks) will also speed up the healing process.