How the Body Works: Heartburn, GERD and Natural Options

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Fourteen years ago when I was pregnant with my daughter I had the worst heartburn of my entire life. Family Size bottles of antacid tablets lined my night table because the pain kept waking me up. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20,  and I so wish I knew then what I know now!!

Strange as it sounds the most common cause of heartburn is not too much stomach acid, but too little! So many of the common Over The Counter remedies for heartburn are focused on reducing stomach acid, but the digestive tract NEEDS enough acid in order for all the parts to work well and efficiently digest your food. So it’s time for another installment of How the Body Works – I hope this explanation is clear and simple enough for even the kids to understand.

The Stomach Furnace

When you chew and swallow your food it travels down your esophagus and into your stomach. There is a little door, (technical name is the Lower Esophageal Sphincter  or LES), that is supposed to close tightly onto the top side of your stomach to keep everything contained. Think of your stomach like a big furnace and the LES like the heavy cast iron door keeping the raging fire inside the furnace and not outside. An efficient furnace operator keeps the door shut tight except when fuel is going in.  But if the furnace operator stops taking his job seriously and forgets to latch the door then it could swing open and sparks could fly out. If the operator falls asleep on the job and just leaves the door open he could find himself on fire! That’s what happens when you feel heartburn.

Having enough stomach acid, and not just weak acid but something strong enough, will act as the signal to the LES that it’s time to get the furnace door shut tight! When there isn’t enough acid or it isn’t acidic enough the LES is like the lazy furnace door operator and that is when heartburn happens. (Click here for a more detailed biological explanation.) Critical thinkers like you can figure out that when you take an antacid because you have heartburn you are just making the problem worse. The LES depends on the signal from the strong stomach acid to keep the door shut tight.

There is also another door at the other end of the stomach (this one is called the Pyloric Sphincter or PS) that also depends on strong stomach acid to do its job. It won’t open the door and let the food out unless the acid is strong enough. When we neutralize the stomach acid we could be trapping our food in our stomach instead of allowing it to continue through the rest of the digestive tract.

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By the way, stomach acid is concentrated hydrochloric acid. (The pH should be about 2.) If you put a few drops on your unprotected skin you’ll get burned. It has to be strong because it has to be able to break down anything you eat plus any bad stuff that might also be on your food like germs. It wouldn’t make any sense to expect a mild, weak acid to digest a nice juicy grassfed steak, or an entire bowl of kale salad….or a whole bag of extreme nacho chips, half a deep dish pizza or anything else you happen to eat! But our body is designed to handle the strong stuff. When the acid is too weak (stress, age, and digestive disorders can make it weak), or when we make it weaker with medications, that’s when we get into trouble.

A strong acid is also needed to signal the rest of the digestion team that it’s time to do their part. The PS opens and the acid jump-starts the duodenum to begin neutralizing the acid and releasing the rest of the enzymes from your liver, pancreas and gall bladder to finish breaking down your food so it can nourish your body.

Critical Thinking Time

Now it’s time to put on your Critical Thinking Caps. Here’s an excerpt from a medical book first published in 1956: “Indigestion and what is loosely called ‘heart burn’ (an irritation of the lower esophagus) are not caused by an ‘acid stomach.’ Acid is a natural and necessary part of the stomach’s digestive function, therefore, most ‘aids to digestion’ and ‘stomach sweeteners’ will do nothing to help and may do harm.” (underlining is mine)  So if it has been common medical knowledge for more than 50 years that antacids (stomach sweeteners) won’t help and could actually harm then why are they still the first choice for a solution?

Nexium, a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), is the #3 top selling prescription drug in the US with over 18 million prescriptions written in 2014 with $6.3 Billion in sales. How do PPIs work? According to the Nexium website “they work by turning off some of the ‘acid pumps’ in the stomach’s acid-producing cells, reducing the amount of acid in the stomach.”  (Emphasis added.)

Not only does the top Rx heartburn drug do exactly the opposite of what is biologically needed for successful operation of the LES and PS doors to our stomach furnace, but the people who use these drugs are using them for much, much longer, years longer, than they were developed to be used. (The studies done on these drugs did not go beyond 6-12 months) AND if that’s not enough there are serious risks associated with PPIs – serious enough that the FDA has published warnings – such as higher risk of bone fractureslow serum magnesium that can lead to heart rhythm problems, seizures and muscle spasms;  and an increased risk of c. diff overgrowth ( clostridium difficile is a pathogenic bacteria that can lead to severe diarrhea and other problems).

If you need one more reason not to take antacids then remember that the point of digestion is to break down the food you eat into easily absorbed nutrients. Without enough stomach acid the whole process of digestion doesn’t get off to the right start. It is the acid in the stomach that sends the message to the gate at the bottom of the stomach to open up and let everything continue, it is the acid in the stomach that digests protein (into amino acids which are the building blocks of our body). Without enough strong stomach acid eventually you end up with nutritional deficiencies – so even if you are eating totally organic, perfectly clean, real food all the time, but don’t have enough acid you can’t break down and digest it and so you will still be sick.

So what can you do instead of antacids?

First of all learn more about the signs of too little stomach acid with this simple article here from SCD Lifestyle.

1. Apple Cider Vinegar

The number one home remedy is apple cider vinegar.  Using a raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar will give you the added bonus of extra enzymes which also help with digestion. For acute heartburn try 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar with 2 ounces (1/4 cup) of plain water. Drink this every five minutes until your symptoms begin to subside. As a daily maintenance you can drink a teaspoon or two in some water before each meal or once or twice a day as needed.

2. Drink lemon water

Lemon water a great tonic for all kinds of things, but the acidity of lemon juice and the natural enzymes from the raw lemon can help digestion.  Squeeze the juice from an entire lemon into your glass, or use a half of a lemon if the whole one is too much. Drink this before meals or as needed.

3. Betaine HCL

Supplementing with Betaine HCL, a supplemental form of the same acid that is naturally produced in your stomach, can strengthen your digestion. Before you try this remedy please check with your doctor because anyone taking Rx medications will need to make sure this supplement is safe for them. You can also read more about taking supplemental HCL here.

4. Try bitters

The bitter flavors naturally stimulate production of your own digestive enzymes. There are many types of bitters available, but one of my favorites is the one by Urban Moonshine. It tastes less medicinal than the more typical Swedish bitters.

5. Ginger Tea

Drink ginger tea between meals. I first learned about ginger tea from reading the GAPS diet book. If you suspect your heartburn is due to poor digestion then a healing diet like GAPS might be for you. To make ginger tea, grate some fresh ginger root (about a teaspoonful) into your teapot and pour 1/2 to 1cup boiling water over it, cover and leave for 3-5 minutes.  Pour through a small sieve and add honey to taste (optional).

6. Digestive enzymes and probiotics

These are good for helping boost the strength of your digestion and keeping your food moving through the entire digestive tract. Digestive enzymes are naturally produced by your body, but if your stomach acid is too weak they may need a little help, so taking supplemental digestive enzymes might be a good idea. The same goes for probiotics – so many lifestyle and dietary factors can deplete our natural beneficial bacteria and daily supplementation through probiotics or fermented foods can keep things running smoothly.

7. Get rid of stress

Stress does all sorts of yucky things, but as far as digestion goes stress can cause you to produce less stomach acid or weaker stomach acid. Ways to reduce stress before a meal include saying grace and being grateful, taking a deep calming breath, stopping to appreciate your meal visually and aromatically – all of these things can help digestive enzymes to start flowing.

What is your favorite home remedy for heartburn? Leave us a comment here to share it with us.

 Remember, this article is not meant to replace a doctor’s care or advice. Please make your own wise choices about health and wellness. 

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