You know that feeling when you learn you’ve been doing something wrong? It’s like, “Oh… bummer.” I’ve been having that feeling a lot in the past year, ever since I threw myself into holistic and real food healing. Case in point: heartburn treatment.
My heartburn “Oh… bummer” moment
I’ve had heartburn my whole life. A few years ago (before I turned into a holistic-healing-obsessed hippie), it was so severe that I went to the doctor begging to a solution. I was offered Prilosec and eagerly grabbed the prescription, grateful for the promise of relief and too oblivious to ask questions. Although the medication stopped the digestive pain, I had a distinct uneasiness when it came to swallowing the pill every morning. After a year on the medication, I decided to listen to my body’s message of apprehension and I quit Prilosec.
As I transitioned slowly into real food, my heartburn gradually improved. Finally, when I started the GAPS diet, it literally disappeared overnight. Recently, I’ve discovered the key interaction between heartburn, stomach acid and overall health. Learning this certainly brought an “oh… bummer” moment. Fortunately, armed with this information, I can take more steps to completely cure my heartburn!
Heartburn and Indigestion: Myths and Facts
Heartburn occurs when stomach acid is to high and should therefore be treated with antacids (Tums, sodium bicarbonate, milk of magnesia) or drugs which inhibit stomach acid secretion (Prilosec, Zantac, Pepcid).
Heartburn usually accompanies low stomach acid, which leads to malabsorbtion of key nutrients. It can be treated with a nourishing diet and supplements instead of drugs which can further increase nutrient malabsorption.
What causes heartburn?
Heartburn, indigestion and GERD result when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES)–the valve which closes of the stomach from the esophagus–malfunctions. Instead of tightly closing after food has entered the stomach, it loosens and acidic stomach fluid escapes into the lower part of the esophagus causing a burning sensation. Interestingly, 90% of folks with heartburn have low stomach acid.
What can cause LES malfunction
Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, food allergies, low stomach acid, acidic fruits, carbonated beverages, sugar, overeating, certain drugs… Obviously, a lot of factors play into LES malfunction. On the bright side, transitioning to a real food diet (perhaps also a grain-free diet, if necessary) will go a long way in fixing the LES.
What is the wrong way to treat heartburn?
Now that we know heartburn/indigestion results from LES malfunction and not high stomach acid, heartburn medications don’t seem very logical. Popping pills to neutralize or inhibit stomach acid may reduce the sensation of heartburn, but it fosters new health issues.
Dangers of modern heartburn treatments
Why is reducing stomach acid with over-the-counter acid neutralizers (bicarbonate of soda, milk of magnesia, Malox, Tums…) or prescriptions (Prilosec, Zantac, Pepcid…) dangerous?
Low stomach acid cannot properly breakdown proteins into amino acids. Lack of amino acids in the bloodstream means less available neurotransmitters which can mean mood disorders like depression. Further, food allergies can result when the undigested proteins escape into the bloodstream.
Low stomach acid fosters imbalanced gut flora. Pathogenic and food borne bacteria, usually killed by the low stomach pH, can make their way into the intestines. Further, lack of acidity in the stomach makes it more hospitable to bacterial growth (and the stomach should be relatively sterile).
Low stomach acid leads to nutrient malabsorption. Specifically, when proteins aren’t fully broken down, B12 absorption is disrupted. Folate and nonheme iron absorption are also affected by low stomach acid.
What is the right way to treat heartburn?
Now that medications and pills are out of the question, what is the real heartburn cure? First, strengthen the LES by transitioning to a nourishing diet (get this book, if you don’t have it yet) . In many cases, it is necessary to identify and remove allergens from the diet with the help of a naturopath or alternative health practitioner. In more serious cases, rebalance the gut flora and treat the food allergies with a grain-free, healing diet like the GAPS diet.
Next, look into taking hydrochloric acid supplements (HCL) and digestive enzymes with meals. This helps your body break down and absorb the nutrients in your food and can reduce heartburn. Preferably, work with a naturopath to when starting HCL supplementation. If that is not an option, determine your optimal HCL dosage (that link also suggests specific brands of HCL/pepsin supplements).
Do you struggle with heartburn? Do you take HCL and/or digestive enzymes?
Images: #1 from SXC, #2 from Free Digital Photos