If you have heartburn, acid reflux or GERD, I'm here to tell you: You can heal your stomach and get better! You are not doomed to a life of burning in your throat and stomach, to belching, bloating and discomfort after eating, to popping antacids after every meal or taking acid-reducing medications (both of which can wreak havoc on your digestion and cause a whole host of problems of their own). In this post I will give you some simple steps you can take to start relieving the pain and damage of these burning bad boys.
Let's start at the beginning: What's the difference between acid reflux and Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)? Any of these issues can disrupt your enjoyment of eating, your sleep, your health and your quality of life. Let's dive in.
Acid reflux is the backward (upward) flow of stomach acid from the stomach into the esophagus. It causes a burning sensation around the heart. Hence the name Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux.
Additional symptoms of Acid Reflux include:
- Sore throat
- Pain when swallowing
- A bitter taste in your mouth or throat
- Stomach pain
- Coughing or wheezing (stomach acid can get into your lungs and cause these symptoms)
- Chest pain (more common when symptoms progress to GERD)
GERD is typically diagnosed when acid reflux becomes chronic. This is usually defined as two or more episodes a week. GERD can be painful. It can also lead to asthma, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, and long-term damage to the esophagus. Stomach acid is powerful, and can cause extensive damage when it escapes from its normal confines in the stomach.
A quick note about stomach acid: It's a critical part of the digestive process and helps protect us from disease. Very few organisms (except for the good bacteria found in many fermented foods) can withstand the strength of stomach acid, protecting us from many food-borne illnesses.
Many, if not most of us, are low in stomach acid. If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above and suspect acid reflux or GERD issues, it's very likely that you have too little stomach acid, not too much. If you have too little stomach acid, food stays in your stomach for too long because it's not being digested and moved on to the next step in the digestive process, and that's when it can start to back up. The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is a powerful muscle that is designed to prevent food from backing up into the esophagus where the delicate lining can be damaged. Over time, chronic acid reflux/GERD can cause the LES to weaken. Over time, this can increase your chance of developing esophageal cancer. So GERD is more than just a painful condition to learn to live with; it can have serious health consequences if left untreated.
When acid reflux starts, the first thing most people reach for is antacids. As it re-occurs and symptoms worsen, you may be tempted (or told by your doctor) to take acid-blockers. These are easily available over the counter. As mentioned above the problem in the vast majority of acid reflux/GERD cases is too little stomach acid. And long-term these medications will not solve the underlying causes and will cause more problems, such as nutrient deficiencies, leaky gut, IBS/IBD and more.
So what can you do to start relieving the painful symptoms of acid reflux and GERD?
The first step is to recognize the foods that most often trigger acid reflux. These include:
- Alcohol, particularly red wine
- Spicy foods
- Garlic and onions
- Citrus fruits and their products, such as oranges and orange juice
- Coffee, even decaf
- Fried foods
- Fatty foods
- Processed foods
If you are looking at this list and finding that many of your favorite foods are on there, don't despair! The great news is that removing these foods will likely drastically reduce or eliminate your acid reflux very quickly. The other great news is that once you heal your stomach you may be able to reintroduce some of these foods again. However, I strongly recommend eliminating highly-processed foods from your diet forever.
Other non-food related triggers include eating big meals or too much at one sitting (which puts pressure on the LES mentioned above), being overweight, smoking and eating too close to bedtime. Laying down after eating can cause your stomach acid to back-up because gravity is not helping to keep it moving in the right direction.
Now for some solutions.
- Shed the excess weight. Carrying extra weight can put pressure on your LES and and also adversely affects the hormones that help regulate the pressure in your digestive system. As little as 10 extra pounds can trigger acid reflux symptoms.
- Reduce stress. Chronic stress affects our digestion in several ways. Many of us are in near-constant fight-or-flight mode, which shuts down our digestive process and causes us to release too much cortisol. We need cortisol at the right times in the right amounts, but to much too often leads to weight gain and other issues. In a true fight-or-flight situation (running from a saber-tooth tiger back in the day, for example) our bodies are more concerned with survival than digesting our last meal. Check out this post for a deeper look at how chronic stress adversely affects your health, digestion and weight. Here are a couple simple strategies to reduce stress around mealtime: Take the time for 5 deep breaths before eating your meal. Turn off all screens while you eat and pay attention to your food and any company you might be with. Give gratitude for your food. These simple steps will help you to eat in a relaxed manner and help your digestion work more efficiently.
- Pay attention to what you eat, and how much. Seems obvious, I know. But too many people don't grab the easy, low-hanging fruit. Avoid the trigger foods listed above. Eat slowly and in a relaxed setting (see #2 above for a few simple ideas on how to do that) so you can keep track of how full you are feeling. It takes up to 20 minutes for the message from our stomachs that we have eaten enough to reach our brains. When was the last time you ate a meal that took more than 20 minutes to finish?
- Pay attention to when you eat. Give yourself a minimum of two hours without eating before going to bed. Three is better. Remember that laying down after eating can cause your stomach acid to back-up because gravity is not working in your favor. If you have acid reflux symptoms even when you give yourself ample time between eating and bedtime, elevate your head to help gravity work for you. Another trick is to sleep on your left side, which improves acid relfux symptoms.
- Bitters, fermented foods and Apple Cider Vinegar can help. Bitters help your body secrete the necessary enzymes for proper digestion. There are many to choose from, but avoid any that have cascara sagrada, senna or other laxatives in them. Becoming dependent on them for bowel movements can happen all too quickly. Eating lacto-fermented foods are critical to maintain a healthy gut and strong digestion. They provide good bacteria and plenty of enzymes to help digest your food. Drinking a glass of water (4 ounces or so) with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (ACV) added to it about 20 minutes before you eat helps your digestion as well. The ACV must be raw an organic for maximum benefit. You can add a teaspoon of raw honey if the ACV is too strong. Fresh squeezed lemon juice helps as well.
- Try hydrochloric acid and/or enzyme supplements. I'm not a fan of most supplements. But in this case they can be extremely effective. Hydrochloric acid (Hcl) is the acid secreted in our stomachs that digests our food. If you are not making enough on your own Hcl pills can jump-start your body's production. They are inexpensive and very effective. Same for digestive enzymes. (Note: Hcl pills most often come with pepsin, which is a helpful enzyme.)
There are six effective, simple, inexpensive steps to take to avoid the potential dangers of acid reflux, GERD and their conventional "cures" of antacids and acid blockers. Leave a comment below and let me know what works for you!