The lower esophageal sphincter is the ring of smooth muscle fibers that separates the esophagus from the stomach. It's basically a barrier to prevent stomach contents from escaping into the food pipe. Whenever you eat or swallow, the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes, allowing food and liquid to pass into the stomach. For some people, this ring doesn't close properly or can even spontaneously open without cause, which leads to a backflow of acids, enzymes and undigested foods into the esophagus. This irritates the esophageal wall and causes symptoms associated with heartburn, acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease.
The upper esophageal sphincter can respond favorably to isometric and isokinetic neck extensions, but no physical exercise exists to strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter. By lifting and holding the neck from a supine position for 60 seconds at a time, you create enough tension in the muscle associated with the upper esophageal sphincter that it can strengthen the valve. Doing a similar lift and holding within the abdominal region of the body cannot provide the same results for the lower esophageal sphincter. Instead, you must turn to alternative treatments if you're hoping to use an exercise to improve digestive disorders such as acid reflux or GERD.
The only exercises that have any promise in reducing symptoms of a weakened or deficient lower esophageal sphincter involve relaxation. Though scientific evidence is still lacking, guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation are sometimes able to calm the body to the point where symptoms of heartburn, acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease can subside, notes MayoClinic.com. Talk to your doctor to help determine which option is best for you.
Guided imagery is basically a process of visualization in which you're guided by suggested images into a state of relaxation, explains the Academy for Guided Imagery. Once you're in a relaxed state, you can focus your attention on an assigned image associated with the digestive disorder. From there, you can work on correcting the problem, in this case a weakened or deficient lower esophageal sphincter. A trained practitioner is needed to fully engage in the practice, so talk to your doctor to find one near you.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
As the American Medical Student Association explains, progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and then relaxing muscle groups to create an all-encompassing state of relaxation. Most of the time, you bring your body into a supine position and work from the head down to the feet. You tense and hold a group of muscles for five seconds before releasing them, which brings your awareness to this area of the body and helps you actively relax. In regard to your stomach and lower esophageal sphincter, you tense up your abdominal muscles and then relax.
If relaxation exercises fail to improve symptoms associated with a weakened or deficient lower esophageal sphincter, talk to your doctor about medication. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs are available to reduce or neutralize the stomach acids that are escaping into the esophagus and thereby improve discomfort.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Heartburn, Gastroesophageal Reflux and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
- MayoClinic.com: GERD
- MayoClinic.com: Heartburn
- American Medical Student Association: Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Academy for Guided Imagery: What Is Guided Imagery?