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Sean Dougherty, 42, of Clifton, N.J., had been living with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) since 1994. His acid reflux wasn't severe enough to warrant surgery, but bad enough that he had heartburn nearly every day and was constantly taking prescription medication—with limited success. Then Dougherty, a vice president at a public relations firm, found a surefire cure—he lost 30 pounds after he went on the Jenny Craig diet in 2008. Since then, he has carefully limited his food portions and calories. He can now consume once-verboten items such as spicy foods and coffee, which would have given him killer heartburn in the past. He's found that he can lead a normal and pain-free life by eating no more than 1,200 calories per day.

April 30, 2012

At first I barely noticed I had gastroesophageal reflux disease, a condition in which stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. I had problems with acid reflux only if I ate a really big meal. It was a little weird—it felt like I couldn't keep food down—but it would go away; when I ate a normal meal, I didn't have any problems at all. Then it started to get worse. Eventually it got to a point where drinking a glass of water would trigger acid reflux. On a vacation with my then-fiance—now my wife—I was in pain the entire time we walked back to our hotel after dinner. That was the last straw. My fiance told me I had to see a doctor; this was a serious problem.
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I had never heard of GERD before my doctor told me I had it, and I didn't really know anything about acid reflux. The doctor prescribed omeprazole (Prilosec), one of many medications called proton-pump inhibitors that reduce the amount of acid in the stomach. Prilosec works great for some people, but in my case it only reduced the acid reflux, it didn't stop it completely. I had less pain, but I still had acid reflux—it was still unpleasant.

What's scarier than daily pain? No coffee
Even worse was the doctor's next recommendation—he told me I could have two servings of caffeine a day, at most. That was a shocker: I wanted to say to him, "I already don't drink, smoke, or do drugs, and now I can't have my coffee?" I work in public relations, a high-pressure job with long hours—how was I supposed to function without coffee? But somehow I got in the habit of having only two cups of coffee a day, as opposed to five or six servings of caffeine. I gave up Indian food too. Luckily, I didn't have GERD to the point that I couldn't sleep at night. And if I had acid reflux at work, as impolite as this sounds, I was able to turn away for a few minutes, swallow, and get myself back under control. Some people are constantly vomiting; I was lucky my GERD wasn't that bad.

Since the heartburn medication wasn't completely curing my acid reflux, my doctor performed endoscopies—a procedure in which a lighted scope is used to examine the stomach—a couple of times over the years. Untreated GERD can cause damage to the esophagus, which over time might lead to esophageal cancer. Luckily, he didn't find much damage.

Because there wasn't a lot of damage, my doctor said he was hesitant to perform surgery to correct the GERD. In addition, GERD surgery doesn't always work that well. He said it could be used to tighten the valve that connects the stomach to the esophagus, but said I didn't really need it.

  Next Page: As the extra pounds disappeared, so did GERD

[ pagebreak ]As the extra pounds disappeared, so did GERD
I switched from Prilosec to Nexium when my insurance changed. I tried the over-the-counter Prilosec, but that wasn't as effective.

I was resigned to the fact that I just had to live with my less painful—but still present—acid reflux. Then I decided to join Jenny Craig in December of 2008.

I cut down from 1,700 calories to 1,500 calories a day, and then to 1,200 calories a day. I lost 30 pounds, dropping from 180 pounds to 150 pounds. I noticed that I was having acid reflux less and less often, and eventually the reflux completely stopped.

There were so many foods I wasn't supposed to eat, but I realized that they didn't seem to trigger acid reflux anymore. Now I drink coffee whenever I want, I ate a ton of chocolate at Easter, and I can order spicy food at a Chinese restaurant—none of my old triggers bothers me anymore. As long as I keep the portions under control, I never have any GERD symptoms.

I still take Nexium as a precaution, but I actually forgot to take it this morning and haven't really noticed. Some days are harder than others to stick to my diet, but it's worth it to me not to be overweight. And the acid reflux cure—well, that was just a pleasant surprise!

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