Some Myths and Truths of Acid Reflux and How to Treat It for Real ResolutionApr 20, 2023
Acid reflux or GERD (gastro esophageal reflux disease) is a common GI complaint. According to published data, it affects approximately 20% of Americans. That’s an astounding amount of people! The vast majority who seek conventional care are told there are ways to “manage” this condition. This usually comes in the form of frank misinformation. More on that in a bit. First some of the basics…
Some signs and symptoms that are associated with acid reflux are:
- Burning sensation that rises up your chest after eating or when lying down
- Acidic or sour taste in your mouth especially upon awakening and after eating
- Intermittent sore throat with associated cough
Most of us have experienced heartburn or indigestion at some point in our lives. This happens. Maybe it is because we ate too fast or while feeling particularly stressed or drank lots of liquid with the meal.
Having said that, infrequent bouts of heartburn or indigestion happen and the body sends you signals in hopes that you recalibrate and correct course the next time you are eating.
The importance of this cannot not be overstated as lifestyle or behaviors drive this imbalance whether it be a one off or something that happens more frequently.
It’s the chronicity of this dynamic that causes all sorts of issues. Most chronic health issues have been brewing for some time and bubble over into specific signs and symptoms and, in the case of acid reflux, that’s exactly what happens. Quite literally!
Our gut is designed to be the passageway for nutrition and hydration while also having to assume the role of great protector against pathogens and toxins - - It’s a fine line to say the least. It’s a monumental job and our gut shows up each day and does the best it can. As with any function, being armed with resources and complete and nuanced information is the key to success.
Let’s explore some myths and have some fun!
- Acid reflux happens because you have too much stomach acid.
Conventional medicine and functional medicine differ significantly in their explanation for why it happens. Conventional medicine says that Acid reflux or GERD results from too much stomach acid being produced causing the acid to “overflow” into the esophagus. But it’s more like that stomach acid which is more often low migrates up into the esophagus because of a faulty or weak lower esophageal sphincter (LES) - even more likely if you belch often. In any case, it’s not a case of too much stomach acid but rather too little and in the wrong place. We’ll get to some reasons why in a bit.
You see, the esophagus is no place for stomach acid. The tissue that lines the esophagus is not meant to handle such acidity like the stomach can. To this end, it feels like it’s burning because the acid is corrosive and that’s what accounts for the burning feeling. Stomach acid’s purpose is to digest protein and kill pathogenic microbes that enter our gut. Adequate amounts are also necessary to signal other chemical compounds, intrinsic factor, lower down in the gut to help absorb B12 - a critical vitamin. There are other digestive liquids mixed with stomach acid, such as pepsin, which are also corrosive and actually begin to digest the esophagus tissue as it thinks this is your meal; it is protein after all!
Between the esophagus and the upper stomach lies the LES (lower esophageal sphincter). This is a muscle that acts as a gate when eating, opening and closing like a fist. It is responsible for keeping what has passed into the stomach in and the acid that’s inherent to the stomach in the stomach. This muscle needs to function adequately and optimally in order to keep everything where it needs to be. Oftentimes in acid reflux, it is not.
But instead of thinking about why this happens most conventional providers will recommend a proton pump inhibitor such as Prilosec or Protonix. Some may get the strong suggestion at the behest of pharmaceutical commercials. You know, the ones on TV just after dinner, when you are experiencing acid reflux. They are so common that acid suppressing medications fly off the shelves. Which leads us to a second myth…
- Just take this pill each day and you can eat whatever you want and not have acid reflux.
In all seriousness, it is yet another powerful example of a ‘pill for the ill” mentality that is pervasive in our society. Truthfully, it may relieve some of your heartburn but it is most certainly not getting to the root cause of what is causing that heartburn. Worse yet, it isn’t really informing you about the unintended consequences of these medications. Just to give you some context, these medications came to market to help suppress stomach acid in people with known stomach ulcers, such as duodenal ulcers. They were intended to be short term therapy, 2-6 weeks while the ulcer healed. Now people take them for YEARS on end. The suppression of stomach acid for so long creates some serious gut microbiome imbalances that most people experience as IBS or SIBO and significant nutrient deficiencies. There’s even some data linking them to dementia and osteoporosis. Remember, stomach acid is your friend. We just have to help it stay where it is needed!
Here are some interventions that will likely get rid of your acid reflux:
- Ensure that you are getting optimal amounts of magnesium.
More than half of us are magnesium deficient. We need optimal levels for that LES to function properly and keep that stomach acid from coming back through into the esophagus. It’s just not in our foods like it used to be, due to topsoil erosion and other farming practices that strip it. Food first is always the way to go so try to incorporate magnesium rich foods such as:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Pumpkin seeds
- Dark chocolate (you’re welcome) - can be an irritant as well so just be mindful of what your body tells you after you eat it
It’s usually not a bad idea to consider supplementation. Adults without any overt kidney problems are usually good candidates but it’s always a good idea to work with a health practitioner to get more complete guidance.
- Consider food sensitivities
Food sensitivities produce an inflammatory immune response. This can be felt as heartburn as mucus production and inflammation in the esophagus increases. Avoid the common pro-inflammatory foods such as:
If you notice other foods cause acid reflux, it’s probably not a bad idea to avoid them for a period of time while you work on healing. Some may be immune mediated and others may just be irritating your tissue. Everyone responds to different foods but some common culprits are:
- Fried foods
- Spicy foods
Stop, sit and listen to what your body tells you after you eat and drink anything. It is always communicating with you. Plus it’s never wrong. :) Don't worry, you will likely be able to add them back once you have healed.
Some other causes of acid reflux…
- Hiatal hernia - a condition where part of the stomach pushes up through the diaphragm. Can often be diagnosed via X-ray and work with a chiropractor can yield improvement
- H. Pylori infection - this stomach pathogen can be endemic but if you have acid reflux getting tested for and treating this is a good idea.
Acid reflux can be resolved for good if you look at why it’s truly happening in the first place. While eating certain foods can certainly aggravate it, popping a pill each day is not the answer and will likely cause all sorts of other problems if used long term. Consulting with a functional medicine practitioner who is gut health savvy will help guide you in kicking this condition to the curb, for good.