What are acid reflux and heartburn?
Millions of people suffer from uncomfortable symptoms of acid reflux and heartburn, which are actually the same thing. This is when stomach acid gets pushed up into the esophagus, the tube that carries food and drink from the mouth to the stomach.
Some reflux is normal and causes no symptoms. But when it happens too often, it burns the inside of the esophagus, causing pain and discomfort.
About one in four Americans have some form of reflux, compared to one in twenty in Asia, suggesting that diet may be a factor.
The most serious form of reflux is GERD, gastro-esophageal reflux disorder, which is also the most common digestive disorder in the US.
GERD and Cancer
The two most typical symptoms of GERD are heartburn in the chest and regurgitation of stomach contents into the back of the throat. More seriously, GERD can turn into cancer.
You start with a normal esophagus. If acid keeps creeping up, it gets inflamed and you can get esophagitis, which can turn into Barrett’s esophagus, which can turn into cancer: adenocarcinoma.
In the last thirty years, the incidence of this type of cancer has increased six-fold … more than melanoma, breast, or prostate cancers. The reason for this is that acid reflux itself is on the rise.
To prevent all this, we just need to prevent the acid reflux in the first place!
What causes GERD?
In general, high fat intake is associated with GERD, whereas a high fiber diet decreases the risk. When we eat fatty foods, the lower esophageal sphincter, the circular muscle that keeps the acid down, relaxes. This allows acid to creep up into the esophagus.
One study of 3,000 people showed that eating animal foods was a predictor of GERD. In addition to meat, egg yolks can also relax the sphincter, which doubles the changes of esophageal inflammation.
Meat and high-fat meals also increase the risk of esophageal cancer. Different meats are associated with cancer in different places: red meat is associated with cancer in the esophagus itself, while poultry is associated with cancer at the top of the stomach.
Meat alternatives like beans, legumes, and nuts are associated with a decreased risk of cancer, as are high antioxidant foods like fruits and vegetables. Surprisingly, those who took vitamin supplements showed no reduction in risk. It appears you need to eat the actual foods themselves, not just take supplements with antioxidants. The most protective foods include red/orange vegetables, leafy greens, berries, apples, and citrus fruits.
Typical acid reflux treatment
The mainstay of treatment for acid reflux is protein pump inhibitors (PPIs), also known as acid blockers. They function to reduce the amount of acid in the stomach.
In the US, we spend billions and billions of dollars on these medications. Unfortunately, PPIs can cause many negative issues such as:
- immune deficiencies due to altered gut environment, increasing risk of illness and infection
- low levels of essential nutrients and nutrient deficiencies
- increased risk of cardiovascular issues
- increased risk of kidney and renal issues
- bone fractures
- negative effects on cognitive function and brain health
Causes of reflux
The theory goes that high levels of stomach acid cause reflux. If this were true, acid reflux would be a young people’s disorder, since we produce much more stomach acid in our youth, and it steadily decreases as we get older.
One study showed that, in a test of people over 40 having heartburn, indigestion, and gas, over 90% of the time they found inadequate levels of acid in the stomach. When you eat triggering foods and stomach acid is too low, the stomach goes into overdrive and tries to produce too much acid, causing reflux.
What causes low stomach acid? Here are a few contributing factors:
- eating too quickly
- high sugar intake
- zinc deficiency
- antacid medication and prescription drugs
- food sensitivities or allergies
- chronic illness
Some factors that cause high stomach acid include:
- large meals
- irregular meals
- milk, especially at night
- citrus fruits
- tomatoes and tomato-based products
- spicy foods
Stomach acid is vital for digestion and health. Without it, foods aren’t digested properly, which creates the gas and bloating that can cause acid to reflux up into the esophagus. When acid levels fall, bugs and bacteria can invade the stomach, which is also linked to acid-related digestive problems.
Inflammation is another trigger for acid reflux. When inflammation is elevated for prolonged periods of time due to microbial imbalance, stress, or inflammatory diet, it can wreak havoc on the digestive system.
Here’s a simple test you can do at home to determine if your stomach acid is too high or too low. When you have symptoms of reflux, you can:
- mix a spoonful of apple cider vinegar (high acid) with a small amount of water, drink, and wait ten minutes. If your symptoms are soothed, you know your stomach acid is low
- if this doesn’t help, try mixing a spoonful of baking soda (low acid/high alkaline) in a small amount of water and drink it. If it helps, you know your stomach acid is high
Natural remedies for acid reflux
Besides avoiding animal products and fatty foods, there are several natural solutions to treating and avoiding your uncomfortable reflux symptoms:
- slooooowwwww down when you eat! Eat at a leisurely pace, and chew each bite of food 20 times. Give your stomach a chance to make the stomach acid it needs, before dumping a bunch of food down there all at once!
- don’t overeat. Leave yourself feeling comfortably full, not busting at the seams.
- don’t eat late at night. Digestive processes slow down while you sleep, so that meal close to bedtime will just sit heavy in your stomach.
- lose weight. Obesity increases the risk of reflux because of too much belly fat creating pressure in the abdomen, pushing the esophageal sphincter upward, away from the diaphragm’s support.
- find ways to manage your stress, including relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation. Stress can lead to stomach problems and increase the production of stomach acid.
- limit processed foods. Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help improve stomach acid levels. Processed foods and sugars can cause inflammation in your stomach, decrease acid activity, and trigger acid reflux symptoms.
- avoid fatty or fried foods, which increase stomach acid production.
- avoid caffeine, which stimulates the production of stomach acid.
- avoid milk, especially at night. Milk can have a rebound effect and encourage more stomach acid secretion, sometimes causing heartburn in the middle of the night.
- to rebalance your gut microbes, take a probiotic supplement or eat probiotic foods like sauerkraut (the real fermented stuff with just cabbage, salt, and water, no vinegar) and kimchi, or drink a probiotic beverage like water kefir or kombucha.
- eat ginger, which is widely known for its anti-inflammatory properties, helping reduce inflammation from low stomach acid. You can slice, grate, or steep fresh ginger into tea and foods, or you can buy it as a powder or take an oral supplement.
- drink aloe juice or eat aloe vera gel to stimulate digestion and combat inflammation. You can use it fresh from the plant, or purchase gel or juice in bottles.
- take deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) as an anti-inflammatory. It’s a processed version of licorice root that has the glycyrrhizic acid removed. It helps speed the repair of the stomach lining and soothes ulcers too. But licorice candy won’t cut it … it usually doesn’t even contain any licorice at all, but rather anise, which does not have the same health benefits as licorice.
- use slippery elm bark herb, in a tea or a supplement. It is similar in makeup to the mucous in your stomach that protects the stomach lining from stomach acid, and it helps you produce more stomach acid as well.
The stomach is where the nutrients are converted into usable energy, and proper. balance of stomach acid is crucial for full nutrient absorption. Make sure your digestion is in optimal shape by taking good care of your gut!
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