Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux disease or heartburn, can be uncomfortable at best, painful at worse, and even downright dangerous in extreme cases. And the acid reflux treatments for this condition follow similar lines.
While some lifestyle modifications such as losing weight or sleeping with your head slightly elevated have been shown to help, most heartburn sufferers have to rely on medications, usually proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) or even undergo surgery. However, long-term intake of PPIs has been raising concerns as of late, and any form of surgery is a risky endeavor.
Given this, Austrian researchers questioned if a different type of lifestyle modification — strengthening the diaphragm — could help ease GERD symptoms. See, for many GERD patients, the reason for the disease lies in a physiological inability to close the muscle at the end of the esophagus, which works in synergy with the diaphragm. By strengthening the diaphragm, they reasoned you could improve GERD symptoms.
Breathing and Acid Reflux Relief
Researchers divided 19 adults with non-erosive GERD into two groups. One group was taught how to do specific abdominal breathing exercises that involved contraction of the diaphragm. They were asked to do the exercises for 30 minutes daily for four weeks. The second group did not do the breathing exercises.
Both groups were allowed to continue use of current GERD medications, including PPIs, but not antacids.
Researchers measured for pH in the esophagus, pressure in the esophagus, and quality of life, using two different scales: the GERD Health-Related Quality of Life Scale and the Gastrointestinal Quality of Life Index.
At the end of the four weeks, researchers found no difference in terms of pressure in the esophagus, use of PPIs, or scores in the Gastrointestinal Quality of Life Index, which tends to focus on the emotional and psychosocial issues of GERD.
However, when it came to pH, researchers found a significant decrease in acid exposure in the breathing group versus the control group. The breathing group also had significant improvement in their scores in the GERD Health-Related Quality of Life Scale, which tends to focus specifically on heartburn symptoms.
But Wait, There’s More
Researchers then took the study one step further and offered long-term follow-up to all 19 participants at the end of the study period. They taught the breathing techniques to the control group and asked all participants to practice 30 minutes a day for at least nine months.
At the end of the nine months, they found that 11 of the 19 patients had continued to do the exercises (six from the initial breathing group and five from the control group). Those that continued enjoyed significant and pronounced decrease in their acid reflux symptoms as compared to those who did not continue the exercises. Additionally, those who did the training had a significant decrease is their dependence on PPIs.
Researchers concluded, “Our work shown that a breathing exercise can improve GERD as assessed by [quality of life] score, pH-metry, and PPI usage. With increasing prevalence of GERD, a non-pharmacological intervention like breathing exercise could have an important role in reducing the disease burden of GERD.”
If you suffer from heartburn or GERD, why not give something as simple as abdominal breathing a try. You can find many CDs or websites that will walk you through the proper techniques. Your best bet is to find one designed for professional singers, as that is the type used in the study.
Practice for 30 minutes a day and as needed when heartburn rears it ugly head.
 Eherer, AJ et al. Positive effect of abdominal breathing exercise on gastroesophageal reflux disease: a randomized, controlled study. Am J Gastroenterol. 2011 Dec 6. [Epub ahead of print.]