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Natural Ways to Fight Heartburn


Pressure Problem


While certain foods can contribute to the degree of acid in the stomach, that’s not necessarily where the problem begins. “When it comes to GERD, the content of acid isn’t the driving force as much as another factor: the function of the lower esophageal sphincter muscle,” says David Wolf, MD, assistant professor in the division of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Medical School. “The majority of people with heartburn don’t have an overacidity problem — they have a sphincter problem.”

Lots of things can mess with your esophageal sphincter. Pregnancy, weight gain and tight-fitting clothing can all exert pressure on the belly, pushing the contents of the stomach up against the LES. You could also suffer from a hiatal hernia, one of the most common causes of heartburn, which occurs when the upper wall of the stomach bulges through the diaphragm and puts pressure on the LES. By age 50, one in four Americans has a hiatal hernia. (As if you needed another reason to eat fiber, it’s worth noting that some people get hiatal hernias by straining during bowel movements. Other causes include lifting heavy objects, coughing or vomiting.)

Underlying inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract (which can result from many things, such as food allergies and autoimmune diseases, for example) can also cause serious problems. “If the sphincter gets inflamed, it can swell and get stuck partially open,” says Lipski. “The standard American diet is inflammatory. We need to take a hard look at how much processed food we eat, both at home and away.”

Many people mistakenly think that the simple act of eating processed or greasy, fried foods will cause heartburn, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Eating poorly can make you obese and inflamed, which, in turn, ups your odds of suffering from heartburn.

For instance, if you are obese, that third chili dog is more apt to give you heartburn because the weight of your belly is pushing the contents of your stomach up against the LES valve. If you’re a stick-thin marathoner, the occasional dog may not faze you at all.

Ultimately it’s the stomach’s acid that burns the base of the esophagus, but it’s important to note that in many cases, heartburn results not because the stomach is too acidic (hyperchloridia), but because it is not acidic enough (hypochloridia).

If you suffer from the latter problem, medications that neutralize or block acid will only make things worse.

How do you know if your heartburn is a case of overabundance or underperformance? Lipski recommends an easy home test. Dilute a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a cup of water. Drink the mixture with a meal. If your symptoms don’t improve, you likely have too much acid in your stomach.

If you feel an improvement in heartburn symptoms, chances are your stomach isn’t making enough acid. In that case, you can boost digestive action in a few ways.

First, improve acid secretion by engaging all your senses in your meals. Taking time to enjoy the sight and smell of your food before you dig in triggers digestive juices, preparing your system for incoming food.

Second, once you start eating, chew your food thoroughly to give your digestion a head start. Avoid drinking large quantities of water with your meals, since this can dilute your stomach acid and interfere with digestion.

Popping digestive enzymes before or with a meal can also be a huge help. Specifically, pepsin (a time-released protein digestant) is available at health-food stores. (The typical treatment for low stomach acid is to supplement with hydrochloric acid [HCL], the main ingredient in stomach acid, but some experts warn that if you actually have normal-to-high acid production and take HCL, you can give yourself an ulcer.)

Playing With Fire


Chewing the occasional antacid (think Tums) or popping an H2 blocker like Pepcid AC once in a while won’t hurt you. But long-term use of heartburn medications, especially the strong stuff, such as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) like Prilosec, Nexium and Prevacid, worries many physicians because these medications don’t address the root of the problem, and in those who already have low levels of stomach acid, they may make it worse.

Most heartburn medications ease symptoms by making the stomach less acidic, says Wolf, but the goal should be not only to alter the acid content of the stomach, but also to reduce the number of times the esophagus is exposed to acid in the first place. That means looking beyond the quick fix. You might need to consider a weight-loss solution or eating-habit changes; ask your doctor to test you for a hiatal hernia (diagnosis typically involves a barium x-ray or an endoscopic exam); or, if you are on a medication that causes the sphincter muscle to relax, switch to a different drug.

The second problem (and the more serious one) is that these drugs were never intended for the type of long-term use they are getting — especially PPIs. But not all doctors realize that.

“When acid-blocking drugs first came on the market, even the pharmaceutical representatives warned us of how powerful these drugs are. They told us not to prescribe them any longer than six weeks,” says Mark Hyman, MD, a functional and integrative physician and founder of the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass. “Now these drugs are given like candy to anyone who ate too many hot dogs at a ball game.”

The concern for all these drugs is that chronic use changes the physiology of the stomach. “The supposedly ‘good’ effect of heartburn medications — shutting down stomach acid — is actually a bad effect,” says Hyman. That’s because the stomach needs acid to digest food and absorb nutrients. Hard evidence links heartburn medications to nutrient deficiencies of vitamin B12, magnesium, zinc and calcium, all of which have long-term health implications.

Moreover, when stomach acid is artificially suppressed, the body can’t oxidize calcium in a way that makes it useful, says Rodriguez. “If you aren’t absorbing enough calcium, your bones are going to get weaker and break.”

In 2010 researchers working with data from the Women’s Health Initiative found a 25 percent increased risk of bone fracture among women taking PPIs.

A third cause for worry is that heartburn drugs may open the floodgates for dangerous microorganisms to invade the intestine. Digestive acids are designed, in part, to kill off bacteria, viruses, fungi, and toxins in food. “If we’ve taken in something nasty, like salmonella, we need acid to break that down or else we’ll get sick,” says Lipski.

Take The Pressure Off


One of the best and easiest anti-heartburn strategies, say our experts, is simply to relax during and after meals. That’s because stress and indigestion go hand-in-hand. When the body is under stress, it puts off housekeeping chores, like making mucus to coat and protect the stomach’s lining.

Stress also leads to speed-eating, less chewing and, ultimately, disrupted digestion. “When you’re stressed, the LES relaxes and the sphincter at the bottom of the stomach tightens up,” Hyman explains. “The result is food traveling back up your esophagus.” Taking a few deep breaths during a meal may be enough to reverse that trend.

Related Reading

Improve Your Digestion To Lose Weight

5 Tips To Improve Your Digestion and Health

Read more: Diet & Nutrition, Health, , ,

By Catherine Guthrie / Experience Life

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Megan, selected from Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

82 comments

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5:20PM PDT on Apr 30, 2013

Thank you

7:53AM PST on Mar 3, 2013

this was EXTREMELY informative. Thank you

4:17PM PST on Feb 5, 2013

gerd is a much more serious condition than an occasional attack of heartburn. it can lead to serious complications especially if your doctors convince you to take acid suppressing drugs. i had the hiatal hernia operation a few years ago...most of my stomach had moved up above my diaphram. i have been taking those awful inhibitors for years and have an upper endoscopy once a year to make sure that my barretts hasn't developed into a very aggressive cancer. i also have a condition that prevents stomach contents from emptying as quickly as they should. the more research i do, the more i distrust my doctors.

this is an enlightening series of articles...
http://chriskresser.com/what-everybody-ought-to-know-but-doesnt-about-heartburn-gerd
it confirms my unanswered questioning and growing suspicions and i am finding more and more support for this. if you or someone you know, you should read this...

3:31PM PST on Feb 3, 2013

Thank you Megan, for Sharing this!

10:57AM PST on Feb 2, 2013

This is a good explanation of the mechanics of GERD - the weak of non- existence of the lower sphincter is major reason for my family to have GERD and taking PPI etc... will not help that.

12:11AM PST on Jan 26, 2013

I was also a long time sufferer of GERD. Diagnosed with hiatal hernia as well, erosive esophagitis & gastritis. I've experienced similar pains that people described here and been taking PPI's for 15 yrs now. One of the biggest problem I have is belching, heaviness on my chest & generally don't feel well. It happens anytime & no patterns that I can trace, which I found very disturbing. Also avoided foods on the list that my Dr gave me. I have done all the test, had 3 endoscopy procedures, taken zantac, maalox, tums, gas-x prevacid, prilosec & aciphex. My doctor tells me that I probably have to take these medicines indefinitely. After reading an article from new york times a few months ago (google "ny times combating acid reflux", I got scared & decided that I would refuse taking any meds that may pose bigger problems for me. I'm glad that I ran into a long time friend who introduced me to alkalete. Excited to say, been 2 months now & no more aciphex for me. I've never felt like this for so many years! Feel like a new person. I have always thank my friend & praise him everyday for sharing it with me. Please read this report to find out more about it.
http://www.goyoli.com/hbpage.php?p=eba_report&PHPSESSID=269e95faa425...
I know that I am marketing this product but as a past sufferer, no one understands what anyone is going through unless you've been there. I wish you all good health!

10:26AM PST on Jan 12, 2013

I get occasional heartburn and find something as simple as sucking an extra strong mint helps.

10:25PM PST on Jan 6, 2013

thanks...

7:29PM PST on Jan 1, 2013

Hmmm...I've been having heartburn lately, especially at night. I've looked into info about GERD, now I'm gonna do the same about hiatal hernia. In 2007, I had my gall bladder removed because of gallstones. It felt like heartburn to me for several years before that, so I definitely need to do more digging!

9:26AM PST on Jan 1, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

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