5 Relaxation techniques that will help your GERD and stress
Here’s a scene from Frasier you might relate to.
Martin: “Can you eat a slice of pizza less than twelve hours before you go to bed?”
Frasier: “What’s on the pizza?”
At some point you’ve probably experienced a burning in your throat or chest from heartburn. An occasional bout of acid reflux or heartburn is to be expected, even if it is inconvenient. Perhaps like Frasier, it depends on what you’ve eaten before bedtime.
But frequent heartburn or acid reflux needs medical attention and may be due to an underlying condition such as Gastroesophagal reflux disease (GERD).
Lifestyle changes for GERD
GERD is very common, affecting up to 1 in 5 adults in the US. If you’ve been diagnosed with GERD you probably already have a list of lifestyle changes to make, such as:
- limiting foods that bring on GERD symptoms
- to stop smoking
- lose excess weight
- eating smaller meals
- waiting at least 3 hours after eating before lying down
- avoid a tight fitting waistband
- limiting fatty food
- limiting alcohol
- raise the head of your bed
- use relaxation techniques
(taken from Mayo Clinic On Digestive Health by Sahil Khanna)
Wait…what?? Did you skip over the last point? Yes, taking the time to relax can help your acid reflux.
Does stress aggravate GERD?
Think back to when you were last stressed (it probably wasn’t that long ago). What happened? Did you have time to make a meal and sit down to savor it? Probably not! When stressed we often let meals slide until it’s too late and then we’ll grab whatever we can … and eat quickly.
Or we can ‘stress eat’ and start mindlessly eating satisfyingly fatty snack foods. Until we’ve ploughed our way through a whole party size bag of chips.
But food may not be the only reason stress and acid reflux are associated.
When you get stressed or anxious, your digestive system slows down and this has the potential to make GERD symptoms worse.
A research study in Korea, showed stress levels to be higher in those with reflux esophagitis. They, like other researchers, suggested that stress alters the GI tract and may be a direct consequence of the communication between the gut and the brain.
And finally, having GERD is stressful (in 2011, a Gallup poll showed that people with heartburn report more stress). It creates tension by producing unpleasant symptoms that interfere with daily living. It also has a huge impact on sleep. So, there’s a cycle of stress that can cause GERD symptoms and then the GERD symptoms cause more stress.
Unless you interrupt that GERD stress-cycle with relaxation techniques.
Here are some relaxation techniques that could help your GERD symptoms.
1. Breathing exercises for GERD
It’s thought that diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, can relieve the symptoms of GERD.
A meta-analysis of seven studies, provided evidence that breathing exercises can improve pressure generated by the lower eosphageal sphincter to enhance an anti-regurgitation barrier. Meaning it can create a stronger barrier between your stomach and your esophagus, so you experience less heartburn and acid reflux. Evidence for this finding supported what others had found in a review of the data.
One of the disadvantages to this technique is that it might take some time to work. Just like it takes a while to notice the effects of working out, in the short-term the difference may not be noticed and it would be easy to give up. But if you persist with practicing diaphragmatic breathing, you may well be rewarded by easing symptoms of GERD and also your overall health and wellbeing.
Diaphragmatic breathing tutorial
Diaphragmatic breathing is basically deep, slow breathing and here’s how to do it.
- It’s easier to take a full belly breath when your posture is upright and open rather than sunken in. This is most likely to happen when you are trying this exercise in a safe environment where you don’t feel self-conscious.
- You can do this lying down, while sitting or standing … your choice (although lying down often helps at the beginning).
- Breathing in through your nose, slowly inhale into your belly so it seems like your belly is expanding until you can’t take in anymore air.
- Then release the breath as slowly and evenly as you possibly can, either out through your mouth or nose. Noticing that your belly helps to squeeze the air out.
- If you like to focus on numbers, remember, four counts breathing in … six counts breathing out.
- Repeat this a few times.
- Be gentle, do not rush or force the process.
At first, it seems unnatural. It may even make you feel lightheaded because it’s not your normal breathing pattern. If so, stop after a couple of breaths and try again tomorrow.
Many studies suggest that GERD patients may experience better management of symptoms if they practice diaphragm training as a complement to traditional medicines. As with all relaxation techniques, they are meant to complement your medical treatment, not replace it.
2. Mindful eating
If you challenge yourself right now to remember what you ate for your last two meals, you’ll probably have to think awhile. We often eat on autopilot. But if we bring some mindfulness to our eating habits it might help us improve GERD symptoms.
Mindful eating means to slow down mealtimes and fully appreciate your food. This can include paying attention to the food before, during and after eating. Taking notice of how the food looks, how it tastes, how it smells, sounds and the texture of how it feels in your mouth. And assessing how your body feels before and after food, without judgement. I have a delicious video to help you mindfully eat chocolate and another video to get you into a calm state before eating.
When you establish mindful eating as an integral part of your life – even sitting down to eat and taking three slow breaths before eating – it allows your body to calm down and be in a receptive state for digestion.
And if you remember to do nothing else, chew more! Chewing is the beginning of digestion and is often overlooked.
Although, one study showed that there is no scientific basis between the speed of eating and reflux attacks in people with GERD, mindful eating can help your symptoms via two other ways. One, by taking away distractions it prevents you from over eating. Secondly, it can improve weight loss because you’re noticing when you’re full.
3. Progressive muscle relaxation
Stress is a contributing factor to GERD and one of the things stress does is tense your muscles without you even realizing it. Progressive muscle relaxation is a way of purposefully tensing and relaxing groups of muscles while lying down or relaxing in a chair. The rest of your body stays nice and relaxed while you tense groups of muscles in a systematically until you’ve worked through your entire body.
A study in 1994 showed that progressive muscle relaxation not only reduced patient reports of reflux but actually decreased acid reflux measurably. When this study was undertaken, it was not known by which processes this happened. But over twenty five years later, it is likely to be part of the ever increasing connection between the gut-brain axis. (You can read another article on the gut-brain axis here).
4. Visualization for GERD
Stress is a natural way of life and it would be impossible to breeze through life without any difficult times. But stress can cause visceral sensations in the body. Similarly, imagining a pleasant scene in your mind can create relaxing changes within your body.
One enjoyable way to relieve stress is visualization. You can close your eyes and imagine being in a safe and relaxing place. And just through the power of imagination, you can relax your body and mind.
There are also guided imagery techniques to visualize the disease or discomfort in your body and imagine it being taken away … sometimes by a healing light or being breathed out. I have created a guided meditation for acid reflux whereby the listener is guided into imagining the heat and acid being breathed out and leaving the body through smoke.
5. Yoga for GERD
I came across yoga for acid reflux when I was having a long bout of it myself, but really wanted to move my body. I tried Yoga With Adriene’s gentle 12 minute sequence. You may be wary of doing exercise when you have GERD and that’s wise. Because you don’t want to do any movements or poses that puts your stomach above your head, such as the downward facing dog.
A case study in the American Journal of Gastroenteology demonstrated how two yoga exercises Agnisar Kriya and Kapal Bhati which emphasize powerful breathing (done on an empty stomach), helped a patient when used alongside his regular treatment of Proton Pump Inhibitor (PPI) therapy.
But any exercise such as low-impact yoga, walking or cycling have been shown to be beneficial.
Yoga is an especially useful exercise as it also focuses on your breathing. If you want to try yoga to see if it works for you, do not exercise within two hours of eating a meal. Allow your body to digest first, then move.
GERD is a chronic illness. Even with traditional medicines, a large percentage of patients do not achieve full symptomatic relief from GERD 100% of the time, and so may benefit further from relaxation therapies. If you have any ongoing or lingering symptoms of GERD, please contact your doctor and seek a diagnosis. Leaving it untreated can lead to further complications.
But relaxation techniques may create a stronger barrier between your stomach and your esophagus, so you experience less heartburn and acid reflux. It will take more time to work than medicine, but the long-term effect could be life-changing.
Relaxation can also help break the stress cycle that normally keeps the symptoms going.
Don’t take it for granted that you’ll relax when you’ve got time. Instead, pencil in time for relaxation.
Experiment with these five relaxation techniques, and keep track of what works for you.
Visit the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders for reliable resources you can use to support your struggle with GERD symptoms.