Updated: Mar 16, 2019
Odds are that you or someone you know experiences heartburn. Around half of North American adults experience it at least once per month. Somewhere between 10 - 20% have it at least once per week!
It can feel like a burning sensation, hence the name "heartburn." Other common symptoms include bloating, burping, difficulty swallowing, or a sore throat. Often there is a bitter or sour taste as well.
Heartburn, also known as acid reflux or GERD, occurs when the strong hydrochloric acid in your stomach creeps up into your esophagus. Often times, people reach for antacids to calm the reflux. However, in doing so, you compromise digestion and can make the problem worse. You see, stomach acid is essential for good health and optimal digestion.
You need the acid in your stomach to protect against harmful microbes (i.e. bacteria) that lurk in your food and drinks. Stomach acid helps you break down your food, and digest nutrients – especially protein. It also kick starts the digestive cascade. When food hits your stomach, acid is released and that tells your gallbladder and pancreas to get ready to secrete enzymes and bile. It also triggers the release of the intrinsic factor which binds to B12 down the line.
Stomach acid doesn't usually burn the stomach itself; this is because the stomach is protected by a layer of mucus.
Your esophagus doesn't have that same protection as your stomach. It has a valve that is supposed to prevent things from going the wrong way (i.e. keep food, drink, and acid down; not allow it back up). And when your esophagus is exposed to stomach acid too often, it can cause the infamous burning, inflammation, and other potential issues. It’s a terrible feeling … I had it when I was pregnant.
Sometimes, there can a mechanical issue with your esophageal sphincter (a ring-like muscle that acts like a barrier between the esophagus and the stomach) or elsewhere in the body, like a hiatal hernia. A mechanical issue may allow acid to move back up into the esophagus. This is where you need your doctors help and diagnosis so you know exactly what you are dealing with.
Other times, heartburn can be a sign of:
Food triggers or sensitivities.
Dehydration – the stomach is a “lesser organ” in comparison with your brain, heart and lungs. If you are dehydrated, the body will take your water consumption for nourishment elsewhere, your digestion is compromised and stress is placed on your stomach.
Hypochloridia (a.k.a., low stomach acid) - In fact, researchers at Manchester University confirmed what naturopaths and nutritionists have been saying for years. Hypochloridia causes malabsorption (poor digestion of vitamins and minerals) and can put you at risk for a bacterial infection. This can directly cause heartburn and other indigestion symptoms.
So what can you do?
This week's blog shares tips that may help you overcome your heartburn symptoms naturally. Of course, if symptoms persist or get worse, please see your doctor to rule out any other underlying or contributing issues.
Tip #1 – Foods to eat (and avoid) with heartburn
You may notice that when you eat or drink certain things, you get heartburn soon afterward. That’s because certain foods can relax the lower esophogeal sphincter, allowing acid to creep up.
These triggers are different for everyone, but often include onions, garlic, chocolate, citrus, tomato, mint (even toothpaste), spicy foods, greasy foods, coffee, carbonated drinks, or alcohol.
Heartburn might also result from a sneaky food intolerance. Try minimizing (or eliminating) grains, dairy, and processed foods for a few weeks and see if that helps.
And as I already pointed out, reflux can be a symptom of dehydration.
I get it. This is a LONG list of foods. How do you know what’s the trigger for you? I recommend keeping a food journal. It’s simple and effective.
Now, you may be wondering: “If I eliminate these foods/drinks, then what can I put in their place?”
Increase your water and fibre intake. This means more whole, unprocessed foods, especially veggies and lower acid fruits like melon and banana. Steel cut oats are high in fibre and low in FODMAPs, so don’t cause excessive gas or bloating. Potatoes may be a great addition to meals if you suffer from heartburn. Try getting at least five servings of veggies every day.
For water, aim for 1.5 – 2L daily and avoid drinking too much water with meals. It dilutes enzymes and further stressing your stomach.
And there are teas that may help reduce reflux – ginger, fennel and marshmallow root teas are all digestive aids.
Tip #2 – How and when to eat
Eat slowly. Use meal times to release stress.
Chew your food very well. When you chew your food, you increase the surface area and it is easier for the body to break down.
Smaller meals are easier to digest … avoid large plates.
Consider food combining … starch with vegetables and vegetables with animal meats. Avoid animal meats and starch together.
Try not eating too close to bedtime. You want to avoid lying down with a full stomach. Give yourself 2-3 hours before lying down, so schedule your dinner or snack with this in mind.
Tip #3 – Lifestyle techniques
Sometimes strenuous exercise can make heartburn symptoms worse – especially if you’re prone to dehydration! If you notice this happens to you, try low-intensity exercises like walking and cycling.
If symptoms come on as you’re lying down to sleep, try adding a pillow or two so your head is a bit higher than your stomach. You can also put your headboard on risers to help keep your upper body elevated.
Another interesting tip is to try sleeping on your left side. Lying on your left side works because the valve that prevents the acid from "leaking" into your esophagus is located on the right side of the stomach. So, when you're lying on your left, the acid is away from that valve.
Tip #4 – Digestive Support
If you have persistent reflux symptoms and have ruled out a mechanical issue, seek the opinion of someone who is trained to provide digestive support and help you identify the best approach to minimize the awful symptoms of reflux.
As I mentioned above, low stomach acid can trigger acid reflux. Symptoms of low stomach include: bad breath, IBS, diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, belching, gastritis, stomach pains, nausea, vomiting and "itchy bum" (rectal itching).
Why? Low stomach acid allows for pathogenic bacteria to proliferate in the stomach (H Pylori ) or in your small intestines (an overgrowth of bacteria in the gut also known as SIBO). Increased gases by these bacteria in the stomach or small intestine, combined with constipation put added pressure on the stomach and the lower esophageal sphincter. Contents of the stomach can leak out, causing heartburn and indigestion.
Prolonged stress (physical or emotional) is the number one cause of low stomach acid. This is followed next by age – we naturally produce LESS stomach acid as we age. A diet high in fat and sugar can also contribute.
You may simply need digestive support for a couple of months to restore balance - food based acids before meals or a liquid/pill form (i.e., digestive bitters, enzymes, or HCl supplement). The type of support depends on your unique situation as some support can be contraindicated in certain conditions.
Some of you may need to rule out small intestinal bacteria overgrowth or an H Pylori infection. You can only do so with laboratory tests.
In both cases, the correct supplement, dosage and support depend on your unique health situation.
Heartburn is a very common condition where stomach acid creeps up into the esophagus (where it’s not supposed to be).
If you suffer from symptoms of heartburn, there are many things you can do. There are foods and drinks to avoid and veggies to increase. You can eat slower, chew more thoroughly, and don't lie down within 2-3 hours of eating. Also, try low-intensity exercise and sleeping on your left side.
Try these simple, natural strategies. They can help prevent or relieve heartburn symptoms for you.