We’ve all experienced occasional acid reflux and heartburn after a big meal — that’s normal. But when it happens again and again, it could be a sign that it is something much more serious than just painful digestion.
As you’ve probably seen on TV commercials, pharmaceutical companies want you to go to your doctor for an antacid or proton pump inhibitor (PPI) when you have acid reflux. But long-term use of antacids (like TUMS or Mylanta), proton pump inhibitors (like Nexium — the “Purple Pill,” Protonix and Prilosec), or H2-receptor antagonists (like Tagamet, Pepcid or Zantac) can set you up for more problems down the road.
You do have more options than just taking a pill. And even if you’re already taking medication, there are highly effective natural ways to calm your digestive symptoms at the source of your acid reflux.
What is acid reflux or GERD?
More than 15 million Americans suffer from acid reflux disease, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, in which the acid from the stomach flows up into the esophagus, causing discomfort, inflammation and sometimes scarring. GERD is a digestive disorder that is diagnosed when the burning happens frequently or even continuously.
The reverse flow of acid into the esophagus takes place when there is pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter (the valve between the esophagus and the stomach) and the stomach itself. Instead of food being pushed down from the esophagus into the stomach and staying there like it should, the food and acid reverse their flow and push back up. The most common reason for this is a loss of tone in the lower esophageal sphincter.
Why antacids aren’t a long-term solution
Conventional medicine focuses on treating GERD and acid reflux by reducing the amount of acid in your stomach. But even if you take medication to block acid production in the short-term, it isn’t a real solution — and over time some medications can even make your digestion problems worse.
When your digestion is healthy, your stomach uses hydrochloric acid (HCl) and the digestive enzyme called pepsin to break down food into needed nutrients. Pepsin works in a highly acidic environment, so when HCl is low, your stomach has difficulty processing your food. When this happens, your stomach may release more gastric acid (which is also called an acid rebound). This can also happen when you take an antacid like TUMS, which neutralize the acid.
Unfortunately, using acid-inhibiting medications such as PPIs or H(2)-receptor blockers can induce a state of hypochlorhydria, or chronic low acid, perpetuating the cycle of indigestion without providing relief for the underlying cause of your symptoms.
So, even if medication to block acid production helps in the short-term, it’s certainly not a solution, and over time it can actually make your acid reflux worse. Instead of masking your symptoms, investigate what’s really causing you acid reflux.
What’s causing your acid reflux?
Here are some common causes of acid reflux:
Loss of muscle tone in the LES. The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) can lose tone and mobility as we age, making it more likely for stomach contents to push up through the weakened valve. HCl levels also naturally tend to decline and digestion becomes more sensitive.
Hypochlorhydria. Chronic low stomach acid affects your ability to fully break down and absorb nutrients, as well as set yourself up for prolonged indigestion and possibly GERD.
Hiatal hernia. When the LES and stomach wall below it partially bulge up through the opening in the diaphragm, it allows the acidic contents of the stomach up into the esophagus. The larger the hernia, the greater the acid reflux.
Food allergies and intolerances. If you suffer from gas, bloating or acid reflux after meals, you may be allergic or intolerant to certain foods. Your gastric juices can’t break the proteins and sugars in those foods into their useable and non-reactive subcomponents.
Pregnancy. The growing womb can push up and put additional pressure on the LES, changing it and allowing stomach contents into the esophagus.
Obesity. It’s possible that extra weight increases the pressure on the LES, so that it stays partially open and permits acid reflux.
Prescription medications, including:
- Anticholinergic agents (such as those used for IBS and chronic diarrhea) can slow the muscular waves of digestion and reduce the pressure gradient in the esophagus.
- Codeine and other opiates slow down the action of smooth muscle tissue and affect LES tone.
- Tricyclic antidepressants have also been linked with GERD, most likely because the neurotransmitters they work on in the brain are the same as those in the gut.
- Hormone replacement therapy has also been found to be strongly associated with gastroesophageal reflux.
Alcohol and tobacco. Smoking may be connected with a decrease in LES pressure, while alcohol delays gastric emptying and lowers LES pressure.
Stress. When you’re stressed, your body produces more of the stress hormone cortisol, which inhibits your digestion. What’s more, your immune system isn’t as strong when you are facing more stress. Both increased cortisol and reduce immune system function make acid reflux more common.
Help for acid reflux — the natural approach
A few simple changes to your diet may be all you need to stop acid reflux and feel better. Here are the steps we recommend.
- Try an elimination diet to identify any triggers. Many favorite foods like chocolate, coffee and dairy can upset the digestive system. For some women, foods are only problematic when they are eaten at certain times of the day. The best way to identify your problem foods is to keep a food diary of what and when you eat. A food diary will also help you identify how much processed or fatty food you are eating — both can cause digestive issues. You may also want to try an elimination diet.
- Eat smaller meals. Eating less at each meal puts less pressure on your digestive system — and keeps your stress hormones balanced. We recommend eating five small meals during the day, with the largest meal at lunch and smallest at dinner to make sure you have enough time to digest before you go to bed.
- Slow down when you eat. When you eat quickly or on the run, your body doesn’t have a chance to break down your food before it gets to the stomach. This causes added stress on your digestive system. What’s more, if your body doesn’t get key nutrients because you’re not digesting your food, it won’t function well and can send your digestion on a downward spiral. Make time to relax when you eat and after you eat in order to reduce stress during digestion.
- Work with gravity. Acid production is at its height within three hours of eating, so try not to lie down during that time period. Working with gravity helps keep your stomach contents down where they belong. Some women find relief from nighttime GERD by simply elevating the head of their beds. Others find that taking a casual walk after a meal helps move digestion along.
- Add a probiotic to your daily routine. You can improve digestion and acid reflux symptoms by boosting stomach function naturally with probiotics. Probiotics help increase the good bacteria naturally found in your body and help keep your digestive system function to break down food and allow for the absorption of nutrients. We include a probiotic in our Digestive Reset Program, which also includes our Digestive-Reset Elimination Diet complete with delicious recipes.
In the end, symptoms like heartburn and indigestion are trying to tell you something. You just have to pay close enough attention. Remember acid reflux doesn’t have to rule your life. Listen to your body, talk to your practitioner and call us — we are here to help.