Relief From Heartburn and GERD

How do you spell “RELIEF” from heartburn?  I spell relief like this: REAL FOOD!

While dozens of drugs promise relief, none really address its true cause and most create a host of dangerous side effects. To understand and address that cause, it is important to know what heartburn is. It’s is the pain that is felt in the chest and throat when food, mixed with hydrochloric acid, is regurgitated from the stomach through the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES) into the esophagus. The Lower Esophageal Sphincter is situated at the base of the esophagus and it should snap closed once the food enters the stomach and stay closed until the next bite arrives.

We’ve been trained by drug ads to believe that the cause of heartburn is excess stomach acid and the latest drug that blocks stomach acid is the true cure. But the real trigger is the nature of our SAD diet: the Standard American Diet (SAD) is a man-made mix of sugar and refined carbs, bad fats, processed protein and booze. This isn’t really “food” to begin with and when we eat this way, our stomach naturally rejects it by sending it back out the nearest exit…burning the delicate esophageal lining on its way up.

In fact, heartburn is the natural response to overloading the gut with food that doesn’t belong there in the first place. The classic business dinner is a recipe for reflux!  It starts late, with cocktails and/or wine, too much meat, white potatoes and bread, followed by coffee, a rich dessert and an after dinner chocolate-mint. Is it any wonder that among the most commonly prescribed medicines in the US today are the acid-blocking drugs?  

Dealing with heartburn and reflux esophagitis without medication can be challenging, unless you know how certain foods and lifestyle modifications contribute to this heartburn. Here are some of the simple and effective measures you can take:

  • Eat small meals: Reducing the size of meals creates less pressure in the stomach, thus reducing the regurgitation of food into the esophagus.
  • Eat meals low in fat and simple carbohydrate: High fat food reduces the lower esophageal sphincter pressure, allowing for regurgitation. Refined wheat products, potatoes and even oatmeal are triggers for many people!
  • Avoid these foods:  Some foods decrease the tone of the lower esophageal sphincter and should be avoided or eaten rarely by those troubled with reflux. Onions, mint, chocolate, and high fat foods such as beef, pork and cheese have all been shown to promote reflux.  In addition, tomatoes, coffee, alcohol, vinegar and citrus increase the acidity of stomach contents, so when regurgitated, they can irritate the delicate lining of the esophagus.
  • Avoid eating late and going straight to bed: Reclining with a full stomach creates such high intra-abdominal pressure that it allows regurgitation to occur. Eat at least 3 hours before reclining to allow time for food to leave the Work with gravity: Simply elevating the head of the bed by 30 degrees (or 6 inch risers) can reduce esophageal reflux dramatically.
  • Weight reduction: Obesity is one of the major contributors to heartburn because it increases intra-abdominal pressure, so if you need to lose weight, do it now.
  • Stop smoking: Smoking cigarettes increases the stomach acidity and must be stopped for reasons too numerous to mention!
  • Avoid carbonated beverages: Though carbonated drinks are thought to neutralize stomach acidity, they encourage belching and regurgitation as the bubbles rise.
  • Try natural therapies first:  DGL (de-glycerrhyzinated licorice) is a licorice preparation that helps to heal an inflamed mucosa by promoting adequate levels of mucous production. DGL also appears to help control the growth of Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that lives in and may cause ulcers. Mastic gum (from Pistacia lentiscus) is another botanical with similar properties. Slippery elm tea and aloe vera juice also help heal the inflamed mucosa of the stomach and esophagus.
  • Some drugs contribute to the problem: Avoid non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs - like ibuprofen), as well as Ambien, tetracycline, doxycycline, potassium, quinidine and iron, which are known to irritate the mucosal lining. Theophylline, bis-phosphonates and some anti-hypertensive meds, synthetic progestins and anti-cholinergics may contribute as well. Check with your pharmacist to see if you are on a medication that may promote acid reflux.
  • Some drugs help treat the problem:  If you have chronic heartburn, short-term treatment with acid blocking drug can be helpful in promoting healing of the irritated esophageal tissues. But these medications reduce stomach acid output by 99% and are associated with numerous side effects, including poor protein digestion, decreased absorption of minerals and increased risk of infections.  They should be taken for no more than 14 days, as the label clearly states, and not indefinitely as is often the case.  

The dietary and lifestyle changes and medicines mentioned above reduce reflux and promote mucosal healing. Remember, people are often put on medication because physicians assume they would rather take a pill than change their diet to address the cause. Because untreated GERD may lead to esophageal cancer, see your doctor and get it assessed (endoscopy). But be sure to implement these lifestyle measures and work with a functional medicine doctor to treat reflux with the appropriate natural and pharmaceutical means necessary to promote complete healing.