Despite the name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. It involves your stomach. Heartburn feels like a burning sensation behind your breast bone in your upper chest. The fire-like feeling can spread from your diaphragm up to your throat. Some people experience a sour taste in their mouth, or a regurgitation of food. Lying down or bending over can make the symptoms worse. This often occurs one hour after eating large meals; Watch out for it this Thanksgiving!
GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease, affects approximately one-third of the population in the U.S. at least once per month. Ten percent of adults experience GERD symptoms daily or weekly. Typically after a meal, acid from the stomach moves up into the esophagus and irritates the inside lining of esophageal tissue, creating the sensation of heartburn. Over time, the stomach acid can damage the lining of the esophagus to the extent where the cells become pre-cancerous, a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus. Other side effects of GERD symptoms include tooth enamel decay, gingivitis, halitosis, coughing, wheezing and asthma. Many people often have a hiatal hernia in addition to GERD. Heartburn and reflux can be extremely troubling because they can feel as though they are having a heart attack.
The Concerns about Proton Pump Inhibitors
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), are some of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States, and they are used to treat GERD symptoms. These medications include Aciphex, Nexium, Prevacid, Prilosec, and Protonix, in addition to H2 blocker medications such as Axid, Pepcid, Tagamet, and Zantac. These medications prevent reflux by blocking the stomach’s ability to produce acid, so there is less damage to the lining of the esophagus. People do get relief from these medications, but often become dependent on these drugs. Over the years the medical literature has raised concerns about the long term use of PPIs including gastric and colorectal cancer, gastrointestinal bacterial infections, community acquired pneumonia, nutritional deficiencies, central nervous system effects and damage to both the kidneys and liver. PPI medications are only palliative. They do not address the underlying cause of a person’s heartburn or GERD, or heal the condition. People with GERD may be told to take PPI medications for the rest of their lives.
The Naturopathic Approach to GERD is Different
The naturopathic approach to GERD is different from conventional care. Stomach acid is understood to be essential for digestive health. It acts as a natural barrier against infection (the acid kills pathogenic bacteria, virus, and parasites). And, acid production allows for absorption of important nutrients such as vitamin B12, iron and calcium. This is extremely important for people with anemia or osteoporosis.
Underproduction of Stomach Acid
Naturopathic doctors believe that the underlying cause of GERD is not an overproduction of acid, but actually an underproduction! Stomach acid levels decline as we age, and acid is further decreased by coffee consumption and a poor diet. Low stomach acid levels actually cause the sphincter muscle on top of the stomach to relax, allowing what little stomach acid there is to reflux and cause heartburn. A healthy, and often higher amount of stomach acid can keep the lower esophageal sphincter muscle tight, preventing the acid from refluxing up into the esophagus. This seems counter-intuitive, and actually opposite to the conventional medical thinking, but naturopathic doctors heal gastric reflux by increasing the person’s stomach acid.
Natural Remedies that Heal Reflux
Dietary changes as well as nutrient and herbal supplementation can heal GERD symptoms. Before taking supplements, consider consulting with a naturopathic doctor about getting a blood test to evaluate food allergies, or doing an elimination diet to see if your symptoms improve when you remove potentially allergenic foods. Often the avoidance of diary products, citrus fruits, tomatoes, chocolate, caffeine, pepperment, fatty foods, and alcohol can heal the issue. Other natural products that are used to alleviate GERD symptoms include:
Betaine HCL - contrary to conventional medical thinking, adding acid to the stomach helps tighten the sphincter muscle at the stomach-esophagus juncture and prevents acid reflux.
Deglycerinated licorice - the demulcent activity of this herb is used to heal the lining of the esophagus and prevent further complications of GERD such as Barrett’s esophagus.
Digestive enzymes - various enzymes can help you digest food your food better.
Marshmallow, slippery elm, plantain, and aloe- other demulcent herbs that soothe and coat the lining of esophagus, and protect the mucosal lining against further acid damage.
Visceral manipulation - a form of gentle bodywork that can be applied to the esophagus and stomach to help alleviate GERD symptoms with a hiatal hernia.
Ways to Prevent Heartburn and GERD
- Chew your food thoroughly, a good rule of thumb is 20 chews before swallowing
- Eat bitter greens in your diet as this stimulates production of stomach acid
- Eat appropriate portions (not too much!)
- Avoid excessive saturated fat
- Do not overly drink fluids with meals (just enough to moisten the food for swallowing)
- Avoid foods that can trigger sphincter relaxation: chocolate, mint, fat, spicy foods
- Beverages that can trigger sphincter relaxation: coffee, tea, cow milk, orange and tomato juices
- Avoid cigarette smoking
- Don’t lie down soon after eating and elevate head of the bed 45 degrees if heartburn chronically interferes with sleeping
- Reduce coffee consumption if heartburn is an issue
- Consider food allergy testing to see if the foods you are eating may be contributing to your symptoms
Consult with Your Local Naturopath
GERD is a complex condition that requires proper evaluation. Naturopathic medicine has many natural solutions available including botanical medicines, homeopathics, physical medicine, food allergy elimination diets and others that can offer a permanent solution to healing reflux, preventing the need for PPI medication.