Updated: Jan 30, 2020
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 st