At some point in our lives, I can guarantee we’ve all experienced heartburn and acid reflux. You know, that burning sensation in your throat or stomach? Burping up undigested food? A sour or bitter taste in your mouth?
It’s not fun. I personally experienced this when I was in college running competitively and eating a very nutrient poor standard American diet. I was given Nexium and sent on my way. And guess what? It didn’t fix my issue at all!
That’s why I am here to tell you to forget everything you’ve ever been told about acid reflux.
In this post I am going to dispel some long held myths about what acid reflux REALLY is, explain why conventional methods do more harm than good, and share some natural remedies to help you start enjoying your food again!
Acid reflux is caused by acid rising up to the esophagus, which is the tube that connects the throat and stomach. Usually acid enters the esophagus because of a leaky valve, meaning it is unable to shut properly. As a result, gastric juices end up coming back up the pipe where they most certainly do not belong. We’ll get into reasons why this can happen later.
But the most important thing to know here? Acid reflux is not actually a sign of too much stomach acid, but in fact is a sign of reduced stomach acid and impaired digestive function. Not enough stomach acid is called hypochloridia because the acid in our stomach is known as hydrochloric acid, or HCl for short.
So you might be asking “well why does it burn so bad?” That’s because our esophagus is highly sensitive and it wasn’t meant to withstand the acidity of our stomach juices. Even the tiniest amount can cause burning and other unpleasant symptoms. The stomach is an acidic place by design. So much so that if you were to dump your stomach acid out on the floor, it would burn a hole in your carpet! We need this acid to break down our food, and to keep bacteria, fungi and parasites from overgrowing and getting into our bodies and wreaking havoc!
In fact, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO, is a common issue with many people who have low stomach acid.
Oftentimes, acid reflux is confused with gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD) or heartburn. While these are similar in nature, it’s important to note that GERD is a much more chronic and severe form of acid reflux and can lead to long-term health issues like a stricture (or narrowing) of the esophagus and esophagitis, an inflammation of the esophagus. And heartburn is actually a symptom of acid reflux and GERD that presents as burning in the chest cavity.
Another risk of chronic acid reflux or GERD is an increased risk for stomach ulcers, or peptic ulcers, which are painful and make eating a very unpleasant activity.
The unfortunate reality is that acid reflux and GERD don’t have to be health issues. But about 25-40 percent of Americans are suffering from acid reflux symptoms when the answer lies in very simple and natural diet and lifestyle changes.
We’ve already covered the most common cause and that is insufficient stomach acid, or HCl in the body. And a lot of these below causes ultimately lead to reduced stomach acid. Chronic stress and a diet that is high in processed/refined foods and sugar and low in nutrients can also contribute to low stomach acid.
What are some of the other causes of acid reflux?
H Pylori infection. This is actually one of the more common underlying root causes of acid reflux and stomach ulcers. H. Pylori is a type of pathogenic bacteria that has proliferated over the last 200 years. In fact, the CDC estimates that about 66 percent of the world’s human population is infected with Helicobacter pylori. And this bacteria is gram-negative (the bad kind) and is highly contagious through saliva, feces and contact with an infected person or object. H. pylori increases your risk for gastritis and gastric cancer in addition to GERD/acid reflux, and is not something to take lightly. You can determine if you have an H. pylori infection through a functional stool test like the GI map, ordered by your holistic practitioner. It can take years for H. pylori to start causing health issues in the body, so the sooner you can test for and eliminate it, the better off you’ll be.
PPIs, antacids and H2 blockers for acid reflux. Yeah, you read that right. So the “conventional” medicine solution to acid reflux/GERD is to basically alter chemical release and function in the body to mask the symptoms, but not actually address the root cause. And this is a dangerous thing! Antacids are probably the most common and widely available remedies for acid reflux and they include things like Pepto Bismol, Tums, Rolaids, etc.
Antacids work by doing exactly as the name suggests, reducing the stomach acid to ease your symptoms. But as we’ve already established, acid reflux is not caused by too much stomach acid, but instead by too little. So you then get caught in a horrible pattern of you popping an antacid, which changes the pH of the stomach to make it even less acidic, and triggers your body to release more acid to replace what’s been lost, and you feeling like crap again and popping more antacids. And the list of side effects of long term antacid use is long and formidable, including diarrhea, constipation, nausea/vomiting, calcium loss/osteoporosis, kidney stones, aluminum toxicity, headaches, and many more.
Proton pump inhibitors, or PPIs, are another common drug used for acid reflux and by far the worst. These work by essentially stopping your acid reflux symptoms by permanently blocking an enzyme that tells your stomach to produce acid, H+/K+ ATPase, which is found in the stomach lining. These include brands like Nexium, Aciphex, Prevacid and Prilosec. So as you can imagine, having virtually no stomach acid is a bad thing and it means you cannot break down your food and will suffer from more digestive issues like constipation or bloating, and you also lose your biggest defense against pathogenic infections: an acidic environment.
There are even more risks associated with the use of PPIs that the FDA has warned against in the last few years, including severe magnesium deficiency, an increased risk of bone fractures and C. diff. Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, is a very serious bacterial infection that causes diarrhea and inflammation of the colon. It is mostly contracted in hospitals due to dirty/contaminated equipment like the scopes used for colonoscopies, but also through the chronic use of PPIs.
Additionally, those who take PPIs long term are at an increased risk for chronic health issues like SIBO, ulcers, stomach cancer, leaky gut, vitamin B12 deficiency, and inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis, which are autoimmune conditions with no cure. They can, however, be managed with diet and lifestyle.
Histamine Type 2 Receptor Agonists, or H2 blockers, are the third common drug prescribed for acid reflux. These are also available over the counter and work similarly to antacids, but they take much longer to work (60-90 minutes) and last for longer, so you may end up taking less. These are brands like Pepcid/Pepcid AC, Axid, Tagamet and Zantac (no longer on the market as of 2020 due to the presence of a known carcinogen, NDMA). Again, these work by blocking hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Consequently, these also stop the production of pepsin, which is a digestive enzyme vital for breaking down protein so it can be digested properly. Without pepsin, we don’t digest our protein and it can cause digestive disruption and intra-abdominal pressure, which is actually another suspected cause of acid reflux/GERD.
H2 blockers interact with other certain medications and come with a laundry list of negative side effects, including: anxiety/depression, dizziness, impotence, hallucinations, heart issues, kidney problems, liver damage, vomiting, stomach cancer (with untreated H. pylori), pneumonia, ulcer perforation, iron and calcium deficiency, and decreased folate and zinc absorption, among others.
What’s the problem with these three medications? Well for one, they don’t actually address the root cause of your distress and just “cover up” the symptoms. And in the long run they end up causing more harm than good. Why waste time and money treating symptoms when you could work on healing the root cause and never having to spend money on these drugs again?
Other causes for acid reflux include?
Additionally, smoking cigarettes, magnesium deficiency, eating too large of meals too fast and certain medications like ibuprofen, muscle relaxers, blood pressure prescriptions and antibiotics can all exacerbate acid reflux and GERD.
More on symptoms here.
First and foremost, you have to get to the root cause of your acid reflux or GERD and remove certain foods that are aggravating while you are dealing with symptoms.
This means you may need to bring in the help of a functional doctor or practitioner to help you identify which cause, or causes, are at the root of your acid reflux, and/or to perform additional testing such as a stool test to rule out H. pylori or other pathogens.
Clean up the diet. As you may have noticed already, certain foods can irritate your acid reflux and make symptoms worse. You will want to avoid these foods while you are healing (and honestly, indefinitely):
Instead, focus on foods that are healing and nourishing for the body and for the stomach and esophagus, such as:
Digestive & HCl supplementation. Because we know that those with acid reflux and GERD suffer from digestive insufficiency and low stomach acid, it may be a good idea to supplement with some digestive enzymes and HCl to help the body break down food/nutrients and to stimulate your own digestive juices and HCl again.
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is a very natural way to increase stomach acid. I like Bragg’s ACV, but just make sure you get it with the mother and unpasteurized. You can add 1 TBS of ACV to 4 or 6 oz of water with some lemon juice to sip on 30 minutes before meals. I have a lot of my clients do this when they don’t want another supplement to take.
However, sometimes this intervention is necessary. In this case, something like betaine HCl with pepsin can be a great supplement to take before or during your meals to help aid in the digestive process. You can easily find these at your health food store or online!
Digestive enzymes are not the same as HCl. These are enzymes like amylase, protease and lipase that help break down our carbohydrates, proteins and fats in our meals. Another option is taking digestive bitters, which are herbs like dandelion root, fennel and burdock root that also can help stimulate digestive juices and are taken 10 minutes prior to meals. I love the Urban Moonshine brand and you can get 15% off your order when you purchase through my online supplement dispensary.
That said, if you do have a stomach ulcer as part of your GERD/acid reflux, then taking HCl right off the bat can cause more irritation and pain. If that is the case you will want to opt for more soothing remedies such as aloe vera juice (I love George’s distilled aloe vera) regularly before each meal, and raw cabbage juice, which despite what you might think, is not acidic at all. You could also find a good supplement with vitamin U and chlorophyllins that will coat the stomach lining and esophagus to help aid in ulcer healing. I typically recommend a product called Gastrazyme to my clients with stomach ulcers before we do any HCl. But you can do digestive enzymes alongside this to help with food breakdown. You can also snag that in my online dispensary for 15% off!
Other soothing remedies include chamomile, ginger and fennel teas, which reduce inflammation and can help calm acid reflux symptoms. You can make your own ginger tea by boiling fresh peeled ginger in hot water for 10 minutes, or pick some up at the store!
High quality probiotics. While this might not directly help with acid reflux, a quality probiotic, such as a spore-based or soil-based probiotic can help to balance out the bacteria in your gut, which is helpful if you have infections or overgrowths. However, I will say eradicating H. pylori or other pathogenic infections can be tricky and is best done under the guidance of a holistic health professional.
Get your mind right. You also want to help aid in digestion by getting your mind right! Eating in a hurry, or on the go does not signal to the body that it’s time to eat, and then it won’t secret the proper salivary enzymes and digestive juices. Being stressed puts our body in a fight or flight mode, and when we are in survival mode, digestion gets turned off. And that’s not good! So we really want to be calm and relaxed when we are ready to eat. Digestion starts in our brains at the sight, thought or smell of food. So we want to be mindful of our meals and get centered before. It can be as simple as taking 2-3 deep cleansing breaths before your first bite and being thankful for the meal you are about to enjoy.
Chew your food! Second to getting the mind in place, get your mouth to put in some work! Most of us swallow our food in a few giant bites. Guess what? That food isn’t digested and can lead to blockages in our intestines. We want our food to be mush when we swallow so it’s easier to break down in the stomach. That means chewing each bite about 25-30 times!
Limit water during meals. It’s okay to sip about 4 oz of water or other beverage with your meals, but drinking too much can dilute your already reduced stomach acid even further and cause more issues. So, sip, don’t chug with your meals.
If you are looking for a passionate, experienced and knowledgeable holistic practitioner to help guide you through a gut healing protocol, I encourage you to schedule a free discovery call today, and check out my “work with me page” to see my services, access my pricing & packages and learn more about me.
I specialize in gut health and hormone balance because those are two areas where I have previously struggled for over seven years! I’ve suffered from leaky gut, acid reflux, SIBO, IBS, parasites, adrenal dysfunction, hormonal imbalances, and anxiety and depression so chances are, I know exactly what you are going through. And I can promise you this: you CAN find healing. You don’t have to suffer alone. All you need is someone on your side, looking out for your best interests. I’d love to be that person!