Can Diet Influence Barrett's Esophagus?
Barrett’s esophagus is a serious condition that increases the risk of esophageal cancer. It is most commonly found in patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Because diet is linked to conditions that worsen GERD, researchers are studying the relationship between the foods we eat and the increased risk of developing Barrett’s esophagus.
The esophagus is the pathway that carries foods and liquids from the mouth to the stomach. Normally, the esophageal mucosa is lined with multiple layers of flattened, scalelike cells. When someone has GERD (persistent reflux that occurs more than twice a week), acid from the stomach is refluxed up into the esophagus, damaging the lining. Barrett’s esophagus occurs when the cells in the lining are replaced by a single layer of cells that are more resistant to acid, a process called metaplasia.
While GERD affects about 10 to 20% of Americans, Barrett’s esophagus affects only about 1% of adults in the United States. The average age at diagnosis is 50 and men develop the condition two to three times as often as women.
Over time, the cells affected by Barrett’s esophagus can continue to multiply, a condition called dysplasia which can lead to esophageal adenocarcinoma. Patients with Barrett’s have a 30 to 40-folod greater risk of developing esophageal cancer.
According to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, diet may play a role in the development of Barrett’s esophagus. Those who consumed primarily a “Western” diet that was high in meat, fast food, soft drinks and coffee, were at a 65% higher risk of developing Barrett’s than those on a more “health conscious” diet which was high in fruits and vegetables, non-fried fish, and tofu.
Because Barrett’s esophagus does not cause any symptoms, physicians recommend that patients older than 40 who have a history of GERD for a number of years undergo an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy with biopsies to check for the condition.
Patients with GERD or Barrett’s are encouraged to eat a diet that is low in fat, high in whole grains, and provides at least five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables. Avoid foods that trigger reflux symptoms to reduce the amount of acid that reaches the esophagus and damages cells.