Updated: Jan 30
Did you know that one of the most common afflictions among Americans is heartburn and acid indigestion? When you feel a burning sensation in the back of your throat and upper chest, you’re going through a case of unwanted heartburn.
Most physicians advise that to relieve the pain of heartburn and other symptoms of acid indigestion, we should reduce the level of acid in our stomachs. And it’s no surprise that most of us at some point in our lives learn the names of many over-the-counter antacid medications.
However, it is far better to take a holistic approach and eliminate the causes of heartburn with nutritional therapy. At Mindful Ways to Wellness in St. Petersburg, FL, we get down to the root causes of your heartburn, looking at not only what you eat, but also how you eat, and how you feel when you’re eating. To understand why this approach works, though, it is important to understand the biology behind heartburn, as well as the function of stomach acid.
“Less is More”
It is generally accepted that long-term over the counter acid-reducing prescriptions allow us to control heartburn “around the clock” (Lenard & Wright, 2001). In fact, acid suppressors were named the highest drug seller in the United States, amounting to 113.4 million prescriptions filled each year up to 2010.
But medical evidence proves that this extreme heartburn protection has more severe health consequences in the long run. In an editorial published by the American Medical Association, Mitchell H. Katz, M.D. advised clinicians to weigh the benefits vs. the risks of acid suppressors. His article is part of the journal’s series, “Less Is More”, which highlights how measures of health are worse when patients receive more health services.
If you’re wondering why, contrary to popular belief, preventing the acid in the stomach is actually harmful, let’s break down what causes heartburn in the first place.
To understand the symptoms of heartburn, we need to be aware of how our body digests food. When we swallow food, and it travels through the esophagus, ring muscles work to push the food toward the stomach in rhythmic waves.
Once food reaches the stomach, a circular muscle located at the junction of the esophagus and stomach prevents it from refluxing (moving back into the throat). This circular muscle is called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).
During digestion, the stomach needs acids and enzymes to mix with food. Protective cells line the stomach to prevent the acid from causing inflammation. However, the esophagus does not have this protection, so if stomach acid refluxes back up, it can cause painful inflammation.
Why Do We Need Stomach Acid?
Stomach acid is a crucial digestive juice that allows our digestive organs to break down the food we eat into smaller parts. Glands in our stomach lining are responsible for creating the stomach acid and enzymes that break food down, and when there’s a proper balance, our stomach muscles mix the food with those digestive juices.
Our body can absorb all the nutrients from the food we eat if it’s properly digested. However, if there is too little acid, the chemical reactions required to break down and absorb vitamins, minerals, proteins, and amino acids may not occur with efficiency (Lenard & Wright, 2001). Our body needs a gastric acid/base balance that allows the production of pepsin, an enzyme required for the absorption of protein. If acid levels are low, so are pepsin levels.
A lack of acid also impedes the body’s signal to close the LES. When this occurs the stomach stays open and prone to sending the existing acid up and irritate the esophagus, causing heartburn, indigestion, and reflux.
The causes of low stomach acid include:
Age- Stomach acid production declines as people age.
Stress- The secretion of our digestive enzymes and juices decreases with anxiety, which causes our body to produce less stomach acid.
Bacterial infection- Most bacteria cannot survive in a highly acidic environment. The stomach’s natural acidity can prevent microorganisms from sticking to our gastric walls.
Medication- Long-term use of antacids or drugs for heartburn may decrease the body’s production of stomach acid.
Here lies a problem. If we choose to take over-the-counter medications every time we feel heartburn, we may experience:
The Consequence Anti-Acid Medications Represent
A 2011 Norwegian study found that 98 percent of people who reported symptoms of acid reflux at least once a week from 1995 to 2009, reported using anti-acid drugs. The drugs included both prescription medications and over-the-counter treatments like Nexium, Prilosec, and Zantac.
Moreover, people’s mild acid reflux symptoms increased by 40 percent by the end of the study. Although the drugs are effective in lessening the pain of acid reflux, the practice of long-term suppression isn't ideal for the body. Over-the-counter medications end up lowering stomach acid, which negatively affects our ability to digest our food correctly.
We need acid to break down proteins, to absorb and digest and kill unwanted bacteria that may try to sneak in our meats (Lenard & Wright, 2001). Long term use of acid suppression medications can have dire consequences in our body like:
Increased reactivity to foods
Impairment of nutrient absorption
Persistent gut inflammation
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
The family of drugs that includes Tums, Pepcid, Zantac, Prilosec, and Prevacid is constantly sold without a complete study of what they do to our bodies. Lenard and Wright (2001) explain the malpractice of suppressing heartburn rather than treating it in their book, titled “Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You.” They point out the concern they have with conventional medicine and the push for suppression without proper medical research.
What Are Some of the Natural Treatments for Heartburn And Reflux?
Reactive methods like over-the-counter drugs are not a permanent answer to our stomach’s health. On the other hand, natural approaches for the treatment of acid reflux mean that you can eliminate the root of the problem, rather than suppress the symptoms with medications. Your stomach and your wallet will thank you for that later.
When it comes to treating acid reflux, you have to make sure you are properly diagnosed with heartburn/GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease). After a diagnosis, it is highly recommended that you eliminate what Lenard and Wright (2011) call offending agents.
To balance the acid in our stomach, we should avoid foods with harsh acids that can relax the lower esophageal sphincter. This relaxation allows our esophagus to open, increasing the amount of acid in our stomach. At this point, stomach pressure can increase and make the esophagus sensitive to more acids that it doesn’t need. This inevitably causes unwanted acid to back up into the esophagus and injures its lining.
Without knowing what to look out for, many offending agents can sneak in with no problem. Foods to avoid in order to reduce heartburn include citrus fruits and juices, caffeinated drinks, spicy foods, tomato-based products, and high-fat foods.
How Our Bodies Control the Digestive Process
Another factor we should be aware of is how we consume our food. Eating large portions, eating under stress, and eating just before bedtime trigger our digestive system. Often, we don’t notice these habits until it’s too late. And while daily life stressors are inevitable, being mindful of how we eat and how we feel when we grab lunch can allow our digestive process to work correctly.
In an article titled “How Stress & Mindless Eating Affect Our Digestion & Health: Ways to Improve Your Eating Habits,” Basia Toczek, a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, breaks down how our stressed state activates what’s called our sympathetic nervous system.
When we are in a non-stressed state, most of our blood flow is in the core of our body. And this balance allows our digestive system to function optimally, she points out. Another important factor mentioned in the article is that any amount of stress can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, bowel issues, acid reflux, and a leaky gut.
Taking measures that reduce our daily stress can be found in the form of cost-free healthy eating practices like:
Sitting down to eat
Turning off electronic devices, helping you focus on the smell and taste of your food. This pure pleasure stimulates saliva production, which aids the digestive process.
Breathing between bites and chewing your food slowly
Finishing eating as soon as you take a natural deep breath
Drinking more water
Not hurrying to finish a meal
It’s time to realize that medical professionals and even the academia have come to vilify acid in our stomachs. The accepted idea that the less acid we have, the better is being debunked. And we can take measures into our hands by listening to our body and choosing to pay more attention to how we eat and what we consume. Informed and natural practices can help us regain the balance of our body and not fight against it.
To learn more about holistic nutritional therapy offered at Mindful Ways To Wellness in St. Petersburg, FL, click here. The center offers nutrition workshops to get you started, as well as private consultations and informational blogs. So feel free to visit our website!
Badillo, R., & Francis, D. (2014). Diagnosis and treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease. World Journal of Gastrointestinal Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 5:3, 105-11. Doi: 10.4292/wjgpt.v5.i3.105
Katz, M. (2011). Failing the Acid Test: Benefits of Proton Pump Inhibitors May Not Justify the Risks for Many Users. The University of New Mexico, www.archinternmed.com. (Original work published May 2010.). Retrieved from http://unmfm.pbworks.com/f/PPI+use+and+cdif.pdf
Lenard, L., & Wright, J. (2001). Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You. Lanham, Maryland: M. Evans.
Prevalence of acid reflux has increased by half over the past decade. (2012, March 01). Retrieved from https://www.ntnu.edu/aboutntnu/ntnu-news-2012/acid-reflux