Heartburn is one of the most common human experiences. It’s become a multi million-dollar pharmaceutical industry gold mine. Most often you can be free of heartburn by changing how you eat.
Heartburn is also called gastroesophageal reflux disorder, or GERD. Everyone accepts the fact that it is stomach acid that causes the problem of burning. The question often asked is “Why is there too much acid in my stomach?” The answer is, there is not too much acid in your stomach! The pain is coming from the acidic contents of your stomach somehow ending up in your esophagus, the tube that leads from your mouth to your stomach. The stomach is designed to be a high-acid environment; the esophagus is not. So how does the acidic stomach stuff get up into your esophagus?
It’s not the acidic food!
People often think they have heartburn because they are eating ‘acidic’ food. Coffee is often blamed, as are things like tomatoes and spicy foods. Eating meat is also considered a problem, in that meat will cause acidic digestive enzymes to be produced by the stomach. It is important to realize that a healthy stomach is designed to be a high acid environment!
The acidic stomach juices have essential work to do for your digestion. Even the worst cup of coffee is much less acidic than a healthy stomach. We need a properly acidic stomach environment to digest our protein, to cause minerals to combine with each other properly so they can be absorbed. The problem is not acid in the stomach; it is acid in the esophagus.
Many of you will be surprised to learn the problem can be to not have enough acid in the stomach. Hydrochloric acid (HCL), pepsin and gastrin are some of the different acidic enzymes we produce to digest our food thoroughly. Along with additional enzymes from the pancreas these substances are absolutely necessary for good health.
All the best food and the world and the most expensive and complicated supplemental pills will not be broken down, reassembled and delivered to your tissues and organs in the right way, if your stomach contents are not properly acidic. Stomach acid is beneficial in other ways. It kills the bacteria, viruses and parasites that we inevitably swallow with our food. There is a particular bacteria called H. pylori, that is associated with gastric ulcers. Stomach acid thus protects us from infections, both acute and chronic, in our digestive tract.
A recent study done by Professor Yancy and his team at the gastroenterology department at Duke University examined the question of whether eating protein foods makes GERD worse. The article was published in Alternative Therapies Nov/Dec 2001, Vol. 7 No. 6 under the title “Improvement of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease After Initiation of a Low-Carbohydrate Diet: Five Brief Case Reports.”
In this study, the Duke researchers looked at people who were mostly diabetic patients, often with a host of other medical problems. Furthermore, they were described as patients who had failed all other conventional therapies. In other words these were patients with GERD who had the greatest number of problems managing it.
These researchers report that in spite of continuing to smoke, drink coffee, and other GERD-unfriendly habits, in each case the symptoms of GERD were completely eliminated within one week of adopting a very low-carbohydrate diet (about 20 grams per day.) The patients were able to stop all antacids and prescription stomach medicines and this improvement continued even after they liberalized their carbohydrate intake to a more tolerable 70 gram per day.
The researchers were unable to definitively say why this had occurred but they suggested that the lower-carb intake influenced the activity of various hormones that open and close the value between the esophagus and the stomach.
This is a very small study of only 5 people. However the results are what naturopathic physicians consistently see in our clinical experience. People who eat a high carbohydrate diet are likely to have heart burn. Grains, especially wheat and corn, tend to make up the bulk of many peoples diets. When they stop eating what they eat the most of, their heartburn is relieved.
Other causes of heartburn include anything else that causes that lower esophageal sphincter to open up. Strong odors, such as coffee! and mint tea, or incense or even perfumes and colognes we wear, can cause that muscle to relax and open up too much. Combine a strong perfume with a meal in which you ate a little too much, and that over-full stomach is likely to spill out the top and cause heartburn. Tight clothes, bending over or going to bed on a full stomach will also do it. About 40% of adults also have a condition called hiatal hernia, which will contribute to a lot of discomfort, including GERD.
Stress, for any reason, has the effect of redirecting blood supply (and thus oxygen, nutrients and waste-removal capacity) away from the digestive and reproductive tracts, to the arms, legs and head. This mechanism, commonly known as the fight or flight response, is great for out-running grizzly bears, but is disruptive on a long term chronic basis! The slow starvation of your tissues leads to subtle then eventually more dramatic symptoms.
Stress creates a sympathetic dominant state where the stomach lining doesn’t produce as much of it’s main digesting fluid, hydrochloric acid (HCl). This is how stress interferes with digestion, leading to inflammation in the gut and decreased tone of your lower esophageal sphincter muscle.
Perhaps you can see how taking drugs that reduce the acid in your stomach can cause problems in the long run. You are not digesting your food properly; you do not have the protection against infection that nature intended if you reduce the acid in your stomach. Long-term blocking of this acid is just not a good life-long strategy.
It’s better to heal up and prevent further inflammation and slowly restore the proper acidity to your digestion. Repeatedly washing your esophagus with acid stomach contents is also a very bad idea. It hurts, of course and that matters. But perhaps more importantly, too much acid for too long on that esophageal tissue can cause cancer. It is important to solve the problem of GERD.