Acid reflux occurs when acid from your stomach splashes up into the esophagus, the tube that connects the gut and the throat. Lacking the protective mucous lining of the stomach, the esophagus is irritated by the acid, and the result is a painful burning sensation also known as heartburn or acid indigestion. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic or severe form of acid reflux that, if left untreated, can cause constriction of the esophagus and the development of a precancerous condition known as Barrett’s esophagus.
The Cause of Acid Reflux
The primary reason people develop reflux is not an overabundance of acid in the stomach—stomach acids actually decline with age while the incidence of reflux and GERD increase. Instead, reflux happens when the gastroesophageal sphincter loosens, allowing stomach contents to enter the esophagus. GERD is a lifestyle disease, affecting as much as 20-30 percent of the population in western nations.
Here are some common reasons why acid reflux occurs:
- When you are overweight, fatty tissue around the internal organs puts pressure on the stomach.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other inflammatory conditions of the intestinal tract, such as Crohn’s Disease, cause bloating that also puts pressure on the stomach.
- A sliding hiatal hernia occasionally pushes a portion of the stomach into the esophagus, loosening the sphincter.
- An overgrowth of the helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacterium in the gut.
Why Traditional Treatments Can Make the Situation Worse
The standard treatment for both acid reflux and GERD is medication that neutralizes, reduces, or blocks acid. However, these remedies are at best a band-aid. Long-term use of any drug that reduces acid, especially proton pump inhibitors which block the formation of acid, can actually do a lot of harm.
The stomach contains hydrochloric acid for a reason—to break down food and kill the pathogens that you ingest when you eat. Both of these things are essential to proper digestion. Low stomach acid can cause food to ferment in the gut rather than digesting properly, contributing to bloating and leading to even more reflux.
Moreover, when the stomach contents are no longer acid, the stomach becomes a ripe breeding ground for pathogens, in particular the H. pylori bacterium. Roughly two thirds of the world’s population is infected with H. pylori, which survives the acid climate of the stomach by burrowing in the mucous lining.
As long as bacteria remains at a low level, it generally does not cause damage, and many people live their entire lives with this type of bacteria in their gut and experience no symptoms. But when you lower the pH of the stomach, you inadvertently cause an overgrowth of H. pylori, which can lead to ulcers in the stomach and, in rare cases, stomach cancer.
Lifestyle Choices that Alleviate Acid Reflux
The first line of defense against acid reflux is maintaining a healthy weight. Stress, which can exacerbate reflux, should be avoided. Because cigarette smoking can also worsen symptoms, you should try to quit or at least cut back the amount you smoke.
The following foods can also trigger acid reflux:
- Coffee, both regular and decaffeinated
- Spicy and/or fried foods
- Carbonated beverages
Finally, when and how you eat is just as important. Gulping down food quickly and eating large meals, especially right before bedtime, significantly worsens reflux symptoms. Make sure you don’t eat too much in one sitting or within 3 hours of going to bed, and refrain from lying down right after eating.
Natural Remedies that Work
The following dietary supplements and whole foods have been proven to curb the growth of H. pylori, coat the lining of the stomach, and help reestablish a healthy mix of gut flora.
Kefir: This fermented food contains millions of lactobacillus bacteria (“good” bacteria) and therefore reduces the amount of H. pylori bacteria in your gut to achieve a healthy balance. Moreover, if your stomach lining has been damaged from H. pylori to the point of ulceration, then drinking kefir during the prescribed “triple therapy” of antibiotics and acid blockers significantly improves the outcome of the therapy.
Deglycyrrhizinated Licorice Root (DGL): DGL is a licorice supplement from which the potentially dangerous compound glycyrrhizin has been removed, rendering it safe for consumption. DGL coats the lining of the stomach and provides relief from acute reflux symptoms. It generally comes in tablet form, which you chew twenty minutes before eating a meal and/or at bedtime. Once your symptoms are under control, you can slowly taper off use.
Apple Cider Vinegar: Despite the fact that apple cider vinegar is acidic and treatment for acid reflux requires neutralizing the stomach acid, apple cider vinegar works by adjusting the body’s pH level in order to produce an alkaline condition in the stomach and thereby relieve acid reflux.
Ginger Root: Ginger has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for hundreds of years to soothe the digestive tract by minimizing acid in the stomach, as well as assisting proper digestion with its antibiotic elements. You can purchase ginger tea or simply place a slice or two of peeled ginger root in a teapot filled with boiling water to enjoy the benefits of this cleansing and soothing beverage.
Slippery Elm: Slippery elm, available in capsules or a tea formula, comes from the inner bark of a tree that grows in North America. The pulverized bark consists of mucilage which encourages mucous production and soothes the stomach lining against overproduction of acid. Sprinkle the powder form on porridge or yogurt, or mix it with boiling water to create your own tea.
When you have chronic or severe reflux, life can be pretty miserable. But the condition is also a wake up call to alert you that your body is out of balance and that you need to take a good look at your lifestyle choices. Making some adjustments can not only cure your heartburn, but also improve your overall quality of life.
The articles on this website are not to be construed as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.