I grew up with two parents who had constant heartburn. Dad always had antacids in his pocket and mom kept them on her nightstand. I just thought it was a thing that all adults suffered from. So when I started to suffer from heartburn in college, I didn’t think of it as something I should seek treatment for. I just started buying big bottles of antacids and sleeping on a pile of pillows to elevate my head. I put on too much weight during grad school, and between eating a students’ poor diet, the excess weight, and the stress, heartburn became just a way of life.
When I was about 30 I got a job at a hospital. One of the doctors saw me popping antacids after lunch and asked if I had ever talked to my doctor about my heartburn. He was shocked that I had never even mentioned it! I consider myself an educated person but that was the first time I heard that long term heartburn can be a sign of GERD, and that going too long untreated, GERD can lead to esophageal cancer.
I found a doctor in the hospital who was doing a clinical trial on people with untreated GERD. I got a free endoscopy as part of the trial, and I was lucky to find that I didn’t have any damage to my esophagus despite years without treatment. I was told to follow up with my primary care doctor and get treatment. She put me on a proton pump inhibitor and I can’t tell you how amazing it was – I took the first pill, and that night for the first time in years I didn’t have heartburn! She told me I’d probably need to be on PPIs the rest of my life if I didn’t want the heartburn to come back.
I started trying to make other changes – eating smaller dinners and not eating right before bedtime – and within a few months I was able to cut back to one pill every other day. But boy if I forgot which day I was on and missed a pill, the GERD came back with a vengeance.
It took another five years for me to find the willpower to start making serious changes to improve my health. I started bicycling in 2008, and started losing a lot of weight. Part of my diet plan was to stop eating at all after about 3pm. Now I no longer need the PPIs.
However, this doesn’t mean I’m “cured” of my GERD. I still have to use antacids on the rare occasions that I eat too close to bedtime or have too large of a meal. It’s still there, waiting for me to slip back into bad habits, and it always will be. It’s just like any other chronic disease. I just wish I had learned earlier that heartburn is not something you have to live with, that treatments and lifestyle changes exist that can help. Good luck to all of you who are still struggling.