We all know that one person who downs antacid tablets like they are going out of style. It’s estimated that anywhere from 22-44% of the global population in the industrialized nations suffer from heartburn. That’s quite a few people. So what exactly is heartburn, and why do so many people suffer from it?
Heartburn, or gastroesophageal reflux is when you have stomach acid splashing up into the esophagus. GERD can be rather benign, but if it is a chronic problem it can lead to something called Barrett Esophagus, which is considered pre-cancerous. Many people believe that an excess of stomach acid causes heartburn, but in reality it is caused by acid reaching places it was never intended to go.
Stomach acid is termed as such because it is designed to be in your stomach. The lining of your stomach is specifically designed to contain this acidic substance for your entire life without causing damage. The only time where stomach acid can become problematic within the stomach is where there is an ulcer present. The esophagus however, is not designed to contain acid. The inner lining of the esophagus is not covered in mucus like the inner lining of the stomach, which means when it comes into contact with acid it will burn. This is what causes the sensation of heartburn.
So why exactly does heartburn occur? There are a few reasons why people experience heartburn. One of the biggest reasons is that the valve between your esophagus and your stomach is stuck in a relaxed state, meaning it is stuck open. This can be caused by smoking, obesity, poor diet, stress, spicy food, hiatal hernias, certain medications, and eating large meals. When the valve is stuck open, the acid splashes up into the esophagus, which causes the heartburn sensation.
What exactly can we do about this? Well believe it or not, neutralizing the acid in the stomach isn’t the answer. I know this goes against everything you have been told, but stick with me. When we neutralize the acid in the stomach, we slow down digestion and inhibit the ability of our body to absorb certain nutrients. When digestion slows, the food we consume remains in the stomach for a longer period of time allowing it to ferment. This can also cause the lower esophageal valve to remain open, causing belching, and sometimes heartburn sensations. So when digestion is slowed, and you consume more food it compounds the issue. This results in the consumption of more acid neutralizers, which just starts the circle again. See where I am going with this?
One of the solutions, put more acid into the stomach. I know it sounds nuts, but I can assure you that I have tried this strategy with patients, and have seen success. The most common supplement that I try is called Betaine HCL. It’s basically stomach acid in a safely consumable form. Not only is this what I tell patients to use, it is what I will use myself when experiencing heartburn. By introducing more acid into the stomach, it speeds up the rate of digestion. This ensures that the offensive food is broken down and exits the stomach quicker than it would normally, thereby minimizing the belching, and acid reflux.
So now that I have turned your perception of GERD on its head, here are some other strategies that you can use to help control your heartburn.
- Use an acid supplement like Betaine HCL, or papaya enzyme. (Use caution if you have a history of stomach ulcers)
- Chew gum following a meal (helps to promote the release of digestive enzymes)
- Improve your overall gut health – believe it or not imbalance in gut flora can have an effect on heartburn as well
- Use natural remedies such as ginger, and licorice root. (Please ensure that licorice root is not used while pregnant or nursing.)
- Give yourself time to digest food before reclining on the couch or bed – This is one of the biggest causes of hiatal hernia.
- Follow a heartburn friendly diet
- Exercise regularly
Theses are just some of the many strategies that can help to minimize your heartburn. So before you reach for the antacid, give some of these natural strategies a try. The results might just surprise you.
*As always, this information is for educational purposes. I am not advocating the cessation of any medication prescribed by a physician.