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4 Natural Ways to Manage Barrett’s Esophagus

4 Natural Ways to Manage Barrett’s Esophagus

How to manage Barrett's esophagus - Dr. Axe

Barrett’s esophagus, sometimes called Barrett’s disease, is a condition in which the cells of your food pipe (esophagus) become like the cells of your intestines. Once the tissue has changed, you are more likely to develop a rare type of cancer, called esophageal adenocarcinoma. (1) However, most people with Barrett’s esophagus never get esophageal cancer, and those who do may live with Barrett’s esophagus many years before cancerous cells appear. (2, 3)

Barrett’s esophagus is most often found in people who have had gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) for a long time. (4) Over time, the acid coming up from your stomach irritates the tissue in your food pipe and causes the change. Although many people don’t have any symptoms from the change in tissue, they are likely to experience symptoms of GERD.

Up to 6.8 percent of people in the U.S. are believed to have Barrett’s esophagus. (5) It usually does not affect children. In addition to regular checkups to look for cancerous cells, treatment for Barrett’s esophagus aims to manage your GERD and remove cancerous or pre-cancerous cells. Thankfully, you can also get GERD symptom relief by making natural changes to your diet. (6)


What Is Barrett’s Esophagus?

Barrett’s esophagus or Barrett’s disease means tissue in the food pipe (esophagus) starts to resemble tissue from the intestines. The change in tissue doesn’t actually cause any problems on its own. Your esophagus can still do its job, pushing food from your mouth down into your stomach. However, the changed cells are more likely to turn into cancer than when they were normal esophagus cells. (7)

When you get a diagnosis of Barrett’s esophagus, you may be told you have one of the following types:

  • Barrett’s esophagus without dysplasia
  • Barrett’s esophagus with dysplasia
    • Low-grade
    • High-grade

“Dysplasia” is the word used to describe cells that are likely to turn into cancer cells. They are also called precancerous cells. “Low-grade” simply means that there are small signs of changes that cancer is coming. “High-grade” means that many changes indicate the cells are about to turn into esophageal cancer cells.

Is Barrett’s esophagus cancer of the esophagus?

No. A diagnosis of Barrett’s disease just means you are more likely to get a rare form of esophageal cancer. However, even with Barrett’s disease, your risk of getting that cancer is very low. (8)

Can Barrett’s esophagus be healed or cured?

Yes, but in many cases, having this condition doesn’t mean you need treatment. Many people don’t even know they have it. Treatment of Barrett’s esophagus without dysplasia only aims at treating heartburn symptoms.

If you have dysplasia, however, some treatments can kill or damage the precancerous cells or take out the portion of your esophagus that has Barrett’s disease. These can effectively heal or “cure” your condition. However, the disease may come back or, if the treatment killed precancerous cells but did not remove the changed tissue, you may still have Barrett’s esophagus, even if it doesn’t cause symptoms or future problems. (9)


Signs & Symptoms

The changes in food pipe tissue caused by Barrett’s esophagus do not cause symptoms. You may not know you have the condition unless a doctor looks into your esophagus with a camera or takes a biopsy (tissue sample). However, the disease often happens in people with GERD, which causes symptoms and may even lead to Barrett’s esophagus.

Barrett’s esophagus symptoms, if you have any, may actually just be symptoms of GERD. These may include: (10)

  • Frequent heartburn
  • Trouble swallowing when you eat
  • Chest pain (rarely)

When you are diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus, it will be done with a small tube and camera that goes down your food pipe. Your esophagus tissue will look red and velvety if you have the condition, instead of pink and shiny like normal esophageal tissue. (11)

Barrett’s esophagus cancer symptoms

If the condition does lead to cancer, symptoms may include: (12)

  • Pain or difficulty swallowing
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Hiccups
  • Hoarse voice
  • A cough that doesn’t go away
  • Feeling tired
  • Vomiting, especially when it looks bloody or like coffee grounds
  • Bloody or black, tarry stools

Seek medical care immediately if you have bloody or black vomit or stools.

Barrett's esophagus - Dr. Axe


Causes & Risk Factors

The exact cause of Barrett’s esophagus is unknown. However, there are several known risk factors that increase your chance of developing it.

Risk factors for Barrett’s esophagus include: (13, 14)

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The long-term flow of stomach acid into your food pipe irritates the tissue. Over time, that damages the esophageal cells and, in some people, the body turns them into cells like those of the intestines. This happens in 10 to 15 percent of people who have GERD.
  • In particular, large amounts of belly fat increase your risk of developing Barrett’s esophagus.
  • Smoking or being a former smoker
  • Being over the age of 50
  • Genetics, or a family history of the disease or esophageal cancer
  • Being male
  • Being Caucasian

Interestingly, there are things that may protect you against Barrett’s esophagus. Researchers don’t know why these seem to protect some people from developing the condition. Possible factors that may decrease your risk include: (15)

  • having a Helicobacter pylori (pylori) infection
  • taking aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) often
  • eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables and some vitamins

Other than eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables and helpful vitamins, it is not recommended that you try to use medicines or get an H. pylori infection to try to avoid Barrett’s esophagus.


Conventional Treatment

Although there is no single Barrett’s esophagus cure, there are several therapies that may be used to help treat the condition.

Unless you have precancerous cells, the goal of treatment is usually to relieve heartburn symptoms and reflux. You will also be checked regularly for cancer. You can expect these surveillance and treatment methods for Barrett’s esophagus: (16)

  • Periodic endoscopy (looking down your throat with a long, thin tube that has a camera on the end)
  • Periodic biopsies of your food pipe tissue to check for cancer or precancerous cells (done at the same time as the endoscopy)
  • Over-the-counter or prescription acid reflux medicines (called proton pump inhibitors or PPIs)
    • Prescription PPIs include omeprazole, lansoprazole, pantoprazole, rabeprazole, esomeprazole and dexlansoprazole

If you do have precancerous cells (dysplasia), your doctor may recommend ablative therapy. This means you will receive a treatment to kill or destroy the precancerous cells. After therapy, your body should start making normal esophageal cells again. (17) Ablative therapies include: (18, 19, 20)

  • Photodynamic therapy. You will have an endoscopy that will use a laser to kill precancerous cells in your food pipe. Before the endoscopy, you are injected with a light-activated chemical (called porfimer). When the laser hits the cells in the esophagus during the endoscopy, it kills them by activating the chemical.
  • Heat therapy. Radio waves at a very high frequency are targeted at the precancerous and cancerous cells in your esophagus. The heat kills the cells.
  • Freezing technology. This uses a process called cryoablation or cryotherapy to freeze and destroy the precancerous cells in the esophagus.

Barrett’s esophagus surgery

If the treatments above are not a good option, if you have esophageal cancer, or if your doctor feels the tissue must be removed to prevent cancer, you may be treated with surgery. (21) There are two types of surgical procedures that may be done to treat the disease: (22, 23)

  • Endoscopic mucosal resection. The doctor will cut out the layer of Barrett’s tissue from the esophagus. The rest of the food pipe remains intact and should grow a new, healthy lining after the diseased tissue is removed.
  • Esophagectomy. You will be put under general anesthesia (put to sleep) and the entire affected section of your food pipe will be cut out. The missing section will then be rebuilt using tissue from your stomach or large intestine.
    • This surgery requires a hospital stay of one or two weeks and is not an option for people with certain other health problems. Because it is so invasive, it is often a treatment of last resort and may only be used when there is cancer or a high number of precancerous cells. However, it can remove esophageal cancer and can eliminate Barrett’s esophagus. (24)

4 Natural Ways to Manage Barrett’s Esophagus 

Technically, there is no such thing as a Barrett’s esophagus natural cure, although there are ways to treat the symptoms that come along with the condition. The symptoms are caused by GERD in most cases, so any Barrett’s esophagus natural treatment recommendations are really just GERD symptom relief recommendations.

These natural ways for reducing acid reflux may help relieve your GERD-related symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus. Several of them can also reduce your risk of developing esophageal cancer.

  1. Stop smoking
  2. Get to and maintain a healthy weight
  3. Raise the head of your bed
  4. Follow a diet to relieve acid reflux

1. Stop smoking

Smoking is one of the key preventable risk factors for developing esophageal cancer after a Barrett’s diagnosis. (25) More importantly, active smokers are at a greater risk for developing esophageal cancer than people who do not smoke anymore. (26) This means that by quitting, you can lower your chances of getting cancer. Quitting tobacco can also ease heartburn and acid reflux symptoms. (27) There are dozens of strategies available to help you quit smoking for good available on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (28)

2. Get to and maintain a healthy weight

Physicians have long known that people who are overweight or obese are more likely to have GERD. However, a 2013 study found that people who lose weight can sometimes experience complete resolution of their GERD symptoms. (29) By keeping your body weight in a healthy range you may be able to escape your GERD symptoms. You may also notice many other health benefits, such as improved endurance and strength, more energy, and lower likelihood of many other diseases. (30) Being obese also increases your risk of developing esophageal cancer. (31) Talk to your doctor about the best way to achieve a healthy weight. You may need to exercise, change your diet, or both. Make sure that whatever strategies you choose are maintainable for the long term, since a healthy weight is as important to your health and disease risk later as it is now.

3. Raise the head of your bed

Put wedges or blocks under the head of your mattress to raise it about 6 inches or more. (32) Don’t just use extra pillows under your head — that is not as effective as physically propping up the top of your mattress. (33)

4. Follow a diet to relieve acid reflux

A diet for Barrett’s esophagus is really just a GERD diet; foods to add to your diet and foods to avoid with Barrett’s disease are basically just foods to eat and avoid if you have GERD. (34) However, research does show that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is protective for people with this condition, meaning you are less likely to develop esophageal cancer. (35)

Simple ways to relieve acid reflux symptoms, which may affect many people with Barrett’s esophagus, include: (36)

  • Avoiding alcohol, coffee, citrus, chocolate, tomatoes, and mint
  • Avoiding foods that are spicy or high in fat
  • Eating lots of vegetables, oatmeal and lean meats (fat can trigger reflux)
  • Staying upright two hours or more after eating

Precautions

Barrett’s esophagus can lead to esophageal cancer. For this reason, it is essential to obtain regular screening. Talk with your doctor about the schedule that makes the most sense for you. You should also speak with your health care provider about lifestyle changes that may help relieve your GERD symptoms, if you have any. He or she may be able to help you identify triggers in your diet that make your symptoms worse.

As mentioned above, do not try to get H. pylori infection in order to reduce your risk of developing Barrett’s esophagus. The bacteria can cause serious problems such as ulcers and, potentially, even stomach cancer.


Barrett’s Esophagus Key Points

  • Barrett’s esophagus is a condition in which the cells of your esophagus become like the cells of your intestines. It makes you more likely to develop esophageal cancer.
  • The exact cause of Barrett’s esophagus is unknown.
  • Most people with Barrett’s esophagus will not get esophageal cancer.
  • If you manage any acid reflux symptoms, you may have no related symptoms at all.
  • You can take steps to prevent esophageal cancer. If you have Barrett’s esophagus, get screened regularly to check for precancerous cells.

4 Natural Ways to Manage Barrett’s Esophagus

  1. Stop smoking
  2. Get to and maintain a healthy weight
  3. Raise the head of your bed
  4. Follow a diet to relieve acid reflux

Read Next: How Your Digestive System Works

Barrett’s esophagus, sometimes called Barrett’s disease, is a condition in which the cells of your food pipe (esophagus) become like the cells of your intestines. Once the tissue has changed, you are more likely to develop a rare type of cancer, called esophageal adenocarcinoma. (1) However, most people with Barrett’s esophagus never get esophageal cancer,… Read more »

Katie Brind’AmourDr. AxeDecember 29, 2017