In terms of preventing acid reflux heartburn, I’ve talked about how high-fat meals cause dramatically more acid exposure in the esophagus in the hours after a meal. High fiber intake decreases the risk, but why? One typically thinks of fiber as helping out much lower in the digestive tract.
A systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2013 found a highly significant protective association between esophageal adenocarcinoma and dietary fiber intake, suggesting that individuals with the highest fiber intakes have an approximately 30 percent lower risk of cancer. This could be because of the phytates in high-fiber foods slowing cancer growth, fiber’s anti-inflammatory effects, or even fiber removing carcinogens. But those are all generic anti-cancer effects of whole plant foods. Specific to this type of acid irritation-induced esophageal cancer, fiber may reduce the risk of reflux in the first place. But how?
As you can see in the video below, hiatus hernia occurs when part of the stomach is pushed up through the diaphragm into the chest cavity, which makes it easy for acid to reflux into the esophagus and throat. Hiatus hernia affects more than 1 in 5 American adults. In contrast, in rural African communities eating their traditional plant-based diets, the risk wasn’t 1 in 5; it was closer to 1 in 1,000—almost unheard of. Hiatus hernia is almost peculiar to those who consume western-type diets. Why are plant-based populations protected? Perhaps because they pass such large, soft stools, three or four times the volume as Westerners.
What does the size and consistency of one’s bowel movement have to do with hiatal hernia? A simple model may be helpful in illustrating the mechanism that produces upward herniation of the stomach through the hole (called the esophageal hiatus) in the diaphragm, which separates the abdomen from the chest. If a ball with a hole in its wall is filled with water and then squeezed, the water is pushed out through the hole.
If we liken the abdominal cavity to the ball, the esophageal hiatus in the diaphragm corresponds with the hole in the ball. Abdominal straining during movement of firm feces corresponds to squeezing the ball and may result in gradual expulsion of the upper end of the stomach from the abdominal cavity up into the chest. It’s like when we squeeze a stress ball. Straining at stool повышает давление inside our abdominal cavity more than almost any other factor.
In effect, straining at stool puts the squeeze on our abdomen and may herniate part of our stomach up. “Consistent with this concept is the observation that in Africans the lower esophageal sphincter is entirely subdiaphragmatic, whereas it usually straddles the diaphragm in Westerners and is above the diaphragm in the presence of hiatus hernia.”
This same abdominal pressure from straining may cause a number of other problems, too. Straining can cause herniations in the wall of the colon itself, known as diverticulosis. That same pressure can backup blood flow in the veins around the anus, causing hemorrhoids, and also push blood flow back into the legs, resulting in varicose veins.