If you have ever experienced heartburn that travels up your throat and into your mouth, leaving a sour taste behind, it may be due to bile acid in your stomach. When this fluid fills your stomach, its cause is bile reflux, a condition often related to acid reflux. Although it can be hard to distinguish between the two, ignoring its symptoms and leaving it untreated can result in serious health complications.
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The Cause of Bile Reflux
Your liver produces bile acid to aid in the digestion and breakdown of fat from the food you eat. Bile acid in your stomach occurs due to a malfunction of your esophagus, a tube that connects your throat to your stomach. At the bottom is a muscle, the sphincter. When working properly, the sphincter only allows food to pass into the stomach. In some people, the sphincter opens spontaneously, allowing stomach acids to flow upward from the small intestine, into your stomach and back into the esophagus.
Bile and Acid Reflux
MayoClinic.com explains bile reflux often accompanies acid reflux, both of which have serious health repercussions. Although the two may contribute to the same complications, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Barrett's esophagus and esophageal cancer, treating bile reflux is not as easy as treating or controlling acid reflux.
Recognizing the Symptoms
Common symptoms of bile reflux include upper abdominal pain that is sometimes severe, nausea, coughing or hoarseness when speaking and frequent heartburn. Vomiting bile, a substance yellow in color with a consistency mirroring mucus, is another sign. These mimic the symptoms of acid reflux; what sets the two conditions apart is a burning pain in your upper abdomen and unintended weight loss. MayoClinic.com recommends seeking medical attention if these apply to you.
Some lifestyle changes may help relieve your symptoms because bile and acid reflux occur together. These include quitting smoking, sitting upright after eating, losing excess weight, avoiding alcohol and reducing your intake of high-fat food. Bile reflux treatment, though, requires drug treatment or surgery. The medication your doctor chooses depends on the cause of your reflux. Some medications prescribed to treat complications such as Barrett's esophagus may relieve the symptoms of bile reflux as well. Surgical procedures, such as diversion surgery, may be necessary if medications are not successful. You are a candidate for this procedure if you have had previous gastric surgeries. Diversion surgery creates a new drainage for bile farther down in your small intestine, veering bile away from your stomach.
If left untreated, bile reflux can result in a number of complications, one of which is GERD. This results in the inflammation of your esophageal tissue, which over time can make swallowing difficult. Barrett's esophagus, another complication, results from long-term exposure to bile acid. It changes the shape and color of the cells in the tissue of the lower esophagus. These cells can become cancerous, leading to esophageal cancer, which is often fatal, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. As of 2010, 14,500 Americans have died from this disease.