Heartburn or acid reflux is a condition where the acid made in the stomach backs up into the esophagus causing some seriously unpleasant sensations like:
- A burning sensation in the chest or throat
- A gnawing sensation in the solar plexus area
- An acidic taste in the mouth
- Cough and/or hoarseness
It is still often assumed that heartburn is the result of the stomach producing too much stomach acid, and therefore medications like Tums or Prilosec are prescribed to neutralize the acid or prevent the stomach from manufacturing it. In fact, it’s usually too little stomach acid that causes or contributes to heartburn, so these medicines actually worsen the problem in the long term (Though they can certainly provide short term relief).
Check out my blog post Why I hate Prilosec, Tums and Zantac for a more detailed discussion of the root causes of acid reflux and the health problems that can result from long term use of acid blocking medications.
Luckily, it is totally possible to be permanently heartburn free by discovering the root causes and using some simple natural therapies.
1. Avoid common heartburn triggers:
Note: These foods are not the CAUSE of heartburn. If they were, anyone who ate these foods would have heartburn, and that is not the case. They are a trigger for people who are already susceptible to this condition, so avoiding them can offer some relief while we work on the true root causes.
- Spicy foods like salsa and hot sauce
- Coffee, chocolate and caffeine
- Greasy foods
- Mint (Peppermint relaxes the sphincter at the bottom of the esophagus, making reflux more likely)
- Acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus
- Carbonated drinks
- Refined carbohydrates like cookies, pastries, bread and pasta
2. Pay attention to how you eat
Your body can’t make enough stomach acid to properly digest your food and prevent heartburn if you’re stressed or rushed while eating. Slow down and give your body a chance to do its job.
- Take 10 deep belly breaths before meals to help your body get ready for digestion.
- Sit down while eating and take your time. Chew each bite fully.
- Avoid eating within 3 hours of bedtime
3. Identify food allergies/sensitivities
For some folks, certain foods other than those listed above will exacerbate their acid reflux. This is a sign that you may be allergic or sensitive to that food. Identifying and avoiding foods that you are allergic/sensitive to can go a long way toward stopping heartburn. The best way to do this is through an elimination diet. Check out my blog post on allergies (Allergies: Getting to the guts of the problem) for information on how to do an elimination diet. Just scroll down in the blog post until you get to the Remove phase of the Four R Program.
4. Check in on your hormones
Elevated progesterone can relax the lower esophageal sphincter or "LES". This sphincter is a band of muscle that lies at the bottom of the esophagus and should stay closed at all times except when you swallow, preventing reflux.
Progesterone levels are high during pregnancy, and this is one of the reasons that pregnant women are more prone to heartburn (The other reason is the growing baby squashing your stomach up against your diaphragm).
Non-pregnant women can develop hormone imbalance with low estrogen and high progesterone which can contribute to heartburn. Consider getting your hormone levels checked and working with your doctor to balance them out if necessary.
5. Make use of some soothing herbs
There are a number of herbs that have a "slippery" quality when they get wet. These can be used to coat the esophagus and stomach lining as you swallow them and help sooth and heal inflamed tissue. Pick one or two of the following and take them between meals or as needed during bouts of acid reflux.
Marshmallow tea - Steep 1 TBSP of the root in 8 oz of water for 30 minutes, and drink 1 cup as needed. You can make larger amounts and refrigerate for up to 3 days so you'll have it on hand when you need it. (Safe in pregnancy)
Aloe vera juice - Drink 1 oz as needed.
Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) - Chew 1-2 tablets (~500-1,000 mg) as needed for heartburn. Note: This type of licorice will not raise blood pressure
Slippery elm lozenges - Chew or suck on 2-4 lozenges as needed. (Safe in pregnancy)
6. Gentle abdominal massage
One often-overlooked factor that can cause or worsen heartburn is called hiatal hernia syndrome. This is a condition where the top of the stomach presses up against the bottom of the diaphragm. Hiatal hernia syndrome is less severe than a true hiatal hernia in which part of the stomach actually sticks up through the diaphragm into the chest cavity, but it causes problems none-the-less.
A gentle abdominal massage technique that takes about 15 minutes can help correct this syndrome and offer immediate and often dramatic relief if this is part of the root cause of your acid reflux. Seek out a naturopathic doctor or functional medicine doctor trained in visceral manipulation or applied kinesiology for this treatment.
7. Increase your stomach acid with foods or herbs
Sour and bitter tasting things stimulate the body to get ready for digestion. One of the ways they work is by signaling your stomach to make acid. Choose one of the following and use it 15 minutes before meals and large snacks.
I saved this recommendation for last because for people who have been struggling with heartburn for a long time, especially those taking an acid blocking medication, going off the medicine and increasing stomach acid can sometime cause increased symptoms. First addressing the 6 recommendations above can go a long way toward making it easy and painless to wean off your medication and restore normal stomach acid levels.
Lemon juice - Squeeze 1/4 lemon into a glass and dilute with a little water. It should still make your mouth pucker.
Bitter greens - chew on a bit of dandelion green (make sure you get it from somewhere that isn't sprayed with pesticides), endive or other bitter greens. You can even get fancy by starting your meal with a small salad of bitter greens with an apple cider vinegar or lemon based dressing.
If you have been struggling with heartburn for some time now, taking these steps to address the root causes and get over it for good is such a wonderful thing to do for your long term health. Please let me know if I can offer you any support.
Check out my earlier blog post Why I hate Prilosec, Tums and Zantac
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