March 21, 2013 by Kimberly Beauchamp, ND
Reflux got you down? Here’s a news flash:
Lowering stomach acid levels might not be the answer.
Stomach acid, also known as HCl or hydrochloric acid, is there for a reason. Well, many reasons, really.
- It acts as a barrier against infections. Most organisms that can make you sick can’t survive the low pH of stomach acid.
- It helps you absorb nutrients, especially calcium, iron, folic acid, and vitamin B12.
- It aids in protein digestion.
But what about acid reflux? Isn’t that bad?
Yes. Acid reflux (GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease) is bad.
The stomach and esophagus are separated by a muscular ring called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES. The function of the LES is to let food pass into the stomach when it reaches the lower end of the esophagus and to keep it in the stomach once it gets there.
Sometimes the LES doesn’t work perfectly, though, and stomach contents, including acid, can regurgitate into the esophagus. And while the cells lining the stomach are equipped to deal with an acidic environment, the esophagus isn’t.
Everyone gets reflux sometimes, but when it happens frequently (more than a couple times per week), it can cause changes in the cells of the esophagus.
Long-term/frequent exposure of the esophagus to stomach acid can lead to:
- Strictures, rings, or webs of tissue in the esophagus. Food can get caught in these areas, making it difficult and/or painful to swallow.
- Ulcer formation in the esophagus.
- A condition called Barrett’s esophagus that increases the risk of developing esophageal cancer. Barrett’s is more likely to develop in older men who also smoke.
You’re more likely to experience chronic reflux if you’re overweight, pregnant, have a hiatal hernia, smoke, or have asthma or diabetes. Some connective tissue disorders and nervous system disorders that affect stomach emptying can also cause GERD.
Certain foods and drinks can trigger reflux, like chocolate, alcohol, coffee/caffeine, citrus, tomatoes, fried foods, fatty foods, mint, garlic, and onion.
The standard treatment for GERD is suppression of stomach acid with one or more acid-reducing medications. Some common ones include Prilosec (Omeprazole), Zantac (Ranitidine), and TUMS (calcium carbonate).
But squelching stomach acid comes with its own set of problems. Long-term use of these medications may lead to:
- Intestinal infections, including Clostridium difficile (C. diff). You can guess by the name that it’s hard to get rid of.
- Low levels of many nutrients, including iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and folic acid.
- Digestive “issues.” When you start messing with one part of your digestive tract, you can bet you’re going to see problems further down.
- Food sensitivities. When you don’t digest your food properly, the potential is there to develop sensitivities to components of these foods, especially proteins.
So while some of the newer anti-GERD drugs like proton pump inhibitors (Prilosec) and H2-receptor blockers (Zantac) can help heal the damage to the esophagus, they’re not really addressing the problem.
GERD isn’t caused by excess stomach acid, it’s caused by stomach acid going where it doesn’t belong.
In fact, some people with reflux benefit from taking extra HCl (that’s right, they do better by increasing their stomach acid levels). Since acid acts as a signal for the LES to shut, lower levels of stomach acid may actually worsen reflux.
So the solution should fit the problem, right?
Keep stomach acid where it belongs
Try elevating the head of your bed at least 6 inches. Pillows won’t work; you actually have to boost up the bed by placing wooden blocks under the head end.
Don’t wear tight-fitting clothes. This increases pressure in the abdomen, making reflux more likely.
Wait 3 hours after eating to go to bed. This gives the stomach a chance to empty before you lay down.
Lose some weight. Many (but not all) studies suggest that losing weight can help relieve reflux.
Eat smaller meals. Eating little bits throughout the day can keep your stomach from being too full at any given time and decrease the likelihood of reflux.
Heal the damage, without side effects
If you have chronic heartburn, chances are there’s some damage in your esophagus. Your doctor can visualize this by doing something called an endoscopy. Talk with your doctor to see if you should have one done.
In the meantime, you can start to heal the damage naturally.
One of my favorite ways to treat heartburn is with licorice. The product I like is called Rhizinate. It has had the component that can raise blood pressure removed and is concentrated in a delicious chocolate-flavored chewable. This form of licorice is called DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice) YOU MUST CHEW DGL for it to do its job, which is to soothe the esophagus, heal damaged tissue, and ease heartburn symptoms.
Another kind of counter-intuitive heartburn remedy is derived from orange peel. It’s called D-Limonene, and you only take one capsule every other day for 20 days. The effects can last up to 6 months.
Get to the root of the problem
If you’re going to effect true healing, you need to know what’s causing the problem to begin with.
I’ve found that beyond eliminating the most common reflux-triggering foods, there’s usually something else in the diet that people are reacting to.
The big culprits:
- All grains.
If the other measures still aren’t working for you, try eliminating all grains and dairy from your diet for two weeks and see how you feel. You may be pleasantly surprised! (Or not, if you’re not into giving these foods up for good!)
Disclaimer: The information contained in this blog is for educational and/or informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any condition. If you have any concerns about your own health or that of a family member, you should always consult with a healthcare professional.