Between the heartburn and acid reflux—that sour taste in your mouth—GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a challenging condition, and options to treat it leave a lot to be desired.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could reduce your GERD symptoms and perhaps eliminate drugs just by breathing?
You can, according to a study done in Singapore—we’ll tell you how.
Background: Drugs called proton pump inhibitors, or PPIs, the most commonly taken GERD medications, are designed to limit how much acid your stomach makes, but they don’t help everyone. And even when they do provide some relief, you can’t rely on them long-term because of the risk for serious side effects. Over-the-counter PPIs such as lansoprazole (Prevacid 24h), esomeprazole (Nexium 24h) or omeprazole magnesium (Prilosec) should be used for only 14 days at a time and only three times a year, according to the FDA.
While prescription-strength PPIs can be used for longer periods under a doctor’s supervision, various studies have raised concerns about possible links to everything from nutritional deficiencies to kidney disease to dementia.
A different class of drugs called H2 blockers—including famotidine (Pepcid), cimetidine (Tagamet) and ranitidine (Zantac)—are considered safer than PPIs, but neither class of drug is cleared for use beyond two weeks or helps with the problem of excessive belching, a distressing symptom that affects up to half of GERD sufferers. Most of these burps come from air trapped in the esophagus, created by fermentation in the stomach and heartburn meds simply aren’t designed to address “supragastric” (above the stomach) belches. Besides being its own problem, excessive belching can bring on more reflux episodes and worsen GERD.
The study: Researchers knew that the type of belching suffered by GERD patients stems from involuntary contractions of the diaphragm, the main muscle that facilitates breathing and contains acid in the stomach. Therefore, they reasoned, purposely focusing one’s breathing on the diaphragm might help GERD patients with the belching and lessen the occurrence of GERD.
They recruited 36 people with GERD who had been on PPI therapy without getting relief from belching and split them into two groups. The people in one group had four one-on-one sessions of diaphragmatic breathing therapy (DBT) with a therapist over a period of four weeks…while those in the other group were put on a waiting list for the training.
The results: After the month of therapy, the number of belches was cut in half in 60% of the deep breathers, whereas no one in the control group had any reduction. Even better, participants’ other GERD symptoms and their overall quality of life improved, too. They continued to be followed for four months and said they maintained better control of their belching and their GERD through the breathing…and had less need for PPI medication for other symptoms.
TRY IT YOURSELF
Strengthening the diaphragm does lessen reflux. The breathing technique practiced by these GERD patients isn’t complicated—all it takes is some focus.
Here’s how to breathe from your diaphragm:
- Get comfortable in a chair.
- Place one hand over your abdomen below your rib cage and the other on your chest.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose on a slow count of four to fill your lungs. Then slowly let out the breath through your lips, again on a slow count of four. This allows your diaphragm to go through its full range of motion, dropping down as you inhale and rising up as you exhale. If you’re doing it right, the hand on your belly should move up and down with each breath, but the one on your chest should remain almost still. As you gain practice, keep inhalation to a slow count of four, while extending exhalation to a slow count of eight.
Practice diaphragmatic breathing for five to 10 minutes at a time, three times day. Learn more about the technique here.
Bonus tips: If you have GERD, lifestyle changes like not drinking alcohol and avoiding food within three hours of bedtime may soothe the burn as well. Try out some safe home remedies, too.