Heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach . . . the catchy Pepto-Bismol jingle that you can’t get out of your head lists a host of symptoms that many of us have experienced. Whereas heartburn is considered a fairly commonplace affliction—according to the U. S. National Library of Medicine, heartburn affects as many as 20 of every 100 people in Western countries—and is often little more than a temporary nuisance, its more severe cousin, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is a serious medical condition with serious potential consequences . . . including some that may surprise you.
GERD is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a chronic disease of the digestive system in which stomach acid or sometimes bile flows back into the esophagus, which irritates the lining of the esophagus and can cause other symptoms like difficulty swallowing, chest pain, dry cough, and even the regurgitation of food into the throat. As far back as 2009, studies have shown a link between acid reflux and poor dental health. Specifically, researchers have found that the presence of stomach acid in the mouth causes tooth enamel—the hard exterior of teeth that protects them from everyday wear and tear and extreme hot or cold—to dissolve. Because tooth enamel contains no living cells, once it’s is gone, the body cannot make more of it.
Under normal circumstances, saliva can break down acids in the mouth. But someone with GERD has atypical amounts and types of acid refluxing into the mouth, which seems to negate saliva’s protective properties and results in enamel erosion. This gives teeth the appearance of thinning, cratering, and pitting. When you consider that stomach acid is strong enough to break down food, it comes as little surprise that it can also destroy the protective enamel on our teeth.