Many people experience heartburn, acid reflux or indigestion regularly. Heartburn is one of the many common symptoms that most now accept as normal. According to the National Institute of Health, 20% of Americans suffer from heartburn symptoms at least once a week. Almost half of these people experience symptoms daily. As with most health problems, modern medicine treats the heartburn symptoms of acid reflux without trying to understand the cause. Unfortunately, popular methods of treating heartburn symptoms worsen the most common cause – and the treatment often leads to additional health issues.
Too much stomach acid?
Stomach acid backing up into the esophagus through the valve at the entrance to the stomach causes the pain of heartburn. The lining of the esophagus can’t handle the extreme acidity of stomach acid. Because of this, acid reflux can cause considerable damage, leading to ulcers and even to cancer. It’s commonly believed that acid reflux is caused by excess production of stomach acid, but when you take a closer look at how the stomach functions, this doesn’t make any sense.
The production of stomach acid naturally decreases with age. In fact, we produce about half as much stomach acid by the time we’re in our forties as we did in our teens. Despite this decrease, the incidence of acid reflux increases considerably with age. If acid reflux is more common with older people who produce less stomach acid, then how could excessive acid production be the cause? Children and teenagers tend to produce much more stomach acid than adults and they have a low incidence of acid reflux.
A better explanation of acid reflux is based on the function of the lower esophageal sphincter. This sphincter is the valve that separates the stomach from the esophagus. If this valve is functioning properly, it will prevent stomach acid from coming back up into the esophagus. But, with impaired function, stomach acid can easily make its way into the esophagus, causing painful damage to its lining. Ironically, poor function of the lower esophageal sphincter is often associated with low levels of stomach acid. This contradicts the basis for conventional heartburn and acid reflux treatments. While some cases of acid reflux are caused by too much stomach acid, it’s very rare.
Why Stomach Acid is Important
Stomach acid breaks down the dense food we eat into small particles. The intestines absorb the particles and distribute them throughout the body. This absorption can only occur when an adequate amount of stomach acid is available to create an acidic environment in the small intestine. Food isn’t fully digested when low stomach acid levels exist. Improper digestion prevents nutrients from being absorbed well. Low stomach acid levels even impair the absorption of supplements.
People who experience improper nutrient absorption due to low levels of stomach acid may suffer from malnutrition. This may even be true if they’re overweight. This malnutrition can lead to a wide variety of diseases including anemia, heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis. The lack of nutrient absorption prevents amino acids from being extracted during the digestion of protein. Amino acids are required to create the neurotransmitters that promote good mental health. Therefore, poor production of stomach acid can even result in mood disorders.
Stomach acid also protects us from infection. The acidic environment it creates in the stomach prevents intestinal bacteria and fungus from migrating there. That environment kills infectious organisms and prevents them from entering the intestines and blood stream. Low levels of stomach acid increase susceptibility to infection. And it allows more undigested protein molecules to enter the intestines. As a result, the intestinal lining becomes susceptible to damage that can lead to hyperpermeability, also known as “leaky gut.” Leaky gut allows undigested protein molecules to be easily absorbed into the blood stream. Once in the blood stream, these molecules often cause immune responses throughout the body. These immune responses often lead to food sensitivities and autoimmune diseases.
The Big Mistake of Most Heartburn Treatments
Modern medicine is all about chasing symptoms. Most doctors also hold the false belief that excess levels of stomach acid cause heartburn and acid reflux. As a result, the most common treatments for these problems is to reduce stomach acid levels with antacids such as Tums, Rolaids or Alka-Seltzer. Or to use acid suppressors such as Nexium, Prilosec or Zantac.
Antacids work by neutralizing existing stomach acid. Suppressants are much more invasive. This is because they prevent the stomach from producing acid. Most conventional medical treatments aim to relieve symptoms but do nothing to address what’s causing them. Conventional treatments for heartburn and acid reflux are even more flawed; they relieve the pain of heartburn by reducing stomach acid levels so that it won’t come back up through the malfunctioning lower esophageal sphincter, however some heartburn treatments reduce acid levels down to almost nothing. While this relieves pain, it worsens the digestion and absorption problems associated with low levels of stomach acid and increases susceptibility to serious health issues.
Helping Heartburn and Acid Reflux…Naturally
The best way to avoid heartburn and prevent acid reflux is to support proper function of the lower esophageal sphincter. The following are some practical ways to do this.
Drink more water
Dehydration can lead to acid reflux by causing the lower esophageal sphincter to relax.
Avoid foods and beverages that weaken the lower esophageal sphincter
This includes chocolate, coffee, mints, sugar, alcohol and onions.
With the agreement of your client’s physician, avoid medications that can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter
This includes bronchodilators such as theophylline, albuterol and ephedrine, and NSAIDs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen. It also includes calcium channel blockers, beta blockers, diazepam, valium, nitrates and Demerol. Avoid Cigarettes as well.
Large meals put pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter. Eating too much food encourages it to open when it shouldn’t.
Avoid anything that increases intra-abdominal pressure
This includes activities such as bending, heavy lifting and tight clothing.
Elevate the head of the bed by 4 to 8 inches
This will keep gravity working in your client’s favor so it will be less likely for stomach acid to drain into the esophagus.
Test for food sensitivities
Have clients avoid the reactive foods that they are sensitive to. These foods can contribute to lower esophageal sphincter problems. If your client can’t get tested, at least have them consider eliminating grains and dairy from their diet temporarily. These are the two most likely food groups to cause sensitivities. It will be important for them to read labels to avoid hidden foods they may be sensitive to that could prolong the problem.
When the body goes into fight of flight mode, it automatically decreases production of stomach acid. Digestion slows down. Those who experience chronic stress may also have chronically low stomach acid. Practicing regular stress management can help stop the constant stress response in the body and is a step towards helping promote good stomach acid production.
It’s also helpful to avoid foods and beverages that can irritate the lining of the esophagus. This includes citrus fruits, tomatoes, spicy foods, coffee and carbonated beverages.
Supplements for heartburn
Hydrochloric acid is naturally produced by the stomach and it is the primary component of its digestive fluid. It’s also available in supplement form. HCl is a convenient way to increase low levels of stomach acid. For people who have a chronic low stomach acid, hydrochloric acid supplementation can be an effective way to improve digestion. Taking it often prevents or even reverses the health issues caused by malnutrition.
People who need hydrochloric acid supplements may also benefit from digestive enzymes, especially pepsin. Although hydrochloric acid supplementation is generally safe, it does pose some risk. People with gastrointestinal lining damage could worsen the damage by taking hydrochloric acid. Because of this, it’s important that your client works with a physician who is knowledgeable about acid reflux and its connection to low stomach acid levels. If possible, have them find a physician who uses the Heidelberg test to assess their current level of stomach acid production. For more information on this test and to find physicians that use it, visit Heidelberg Medical Incorporated.
For more information on heartburn and acid reflux, you might want to check out Why Stomach Acid is Good for You by Jonathan Wright, MD. Dr. Wright is one of the most widely recognized supporters of natural medicine who provides a lot of great information in this book. You’ll find more detailed information about the true cause of heartburn and acid reflux. You’ll read about the many problems caused by the digestive issues associated with low levels of stomach acid. You can learn more about the dangers of popular antacids and acid blockers and get recommendations about a variety of natural supplements that will help relieve heartburn and prevent acid reflux.