Belch. “Oh no, what did I eat? Ugh, heartburn!” It’s the annoying, painful and burning sensation behind your breastbone that travels up your throat. The guessing begins: “It must have been the tomato sauce at dinner. Maybe it’s the cheese or the chocolate. I never used to get heartburn but now I get it after eating spicy or acidic foods.” Then you accept that it just happens now. Heartburn is a very common occurrence in today’s world. It’s so common in fact that it affects “as many as 50% of Americans” (Mercola, 2014). Even with so many experiencing it, it doesn’t have to be your new reality.
Since the burning sensation comes after eating, we naturally associate it with the food we ate. But there are many other contributing factors. Despite it’s name and the feeling that it’s near the heart, this symptom has nothing to do with the cardiovascular system. Then over-the-counter antacids are prescribed because we’re told we have too much stomach acid when in actuality the stomach needs acid to function properly. With all this commonly-accepted misinformation let’s look at what happens in the body with heartburn, bust a few myths and examine some health-supportive solutions that combat heartburn.
Feel the Burn
What’s happening in our bodies that, at times, can feel like a heart attack? When you have heartburn, “the muscular valve that controls your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) stops properly keeping stomach acid in the stomach…. When the LES fails to stay sealed or opens too much and too often, stomach acid can slowly seep out and cause ‘reflux’ symptoms” (Axe). So the acid that should be in the stomach, that is necessary for the stomach, moves out of the stomach into the esophagus where it does not belong. The stomach requires a pH level from 1.5 to 3.5 (nearly pure acid) for optimal digestion. “The acid moves up into first the esophagus and then possibly the throat or mouth, burning, pain, gas and belching all occur” (Axe).
While occasional heartburn may occur and be rather harmless it’s important to know that if you have ongoing, recurring heartburn it may be related to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). When you have chronic heartburn (for months or years) it could lead to more severe conditions like ulceration, damage to the esophageal lining, inflammation or “in a very small percentage of people, cancer. This is why intermittent or minor heartburn should never be allowed to become chronic” (Wright & Lenard, 2001). What is GERD? Some call it a disease while other medical professionals say, “GERD is not really a disease, per se, but more like a syndrome consisting of one or more of these disorders:” damage to the esophageal lining, mild to severe inflammation of the esophagus, symptoms such as heartburn, belching; upset stomach, bloating/gas; difficulty swallowing or sore throat to name a few (Wright & Lenard, 2001).
If you have had ongoing symptoms it’s important to get to the root cause so you can understand how to best address it. Once we understand the cause, then and only then, can we properly address this sign of disfunction in the body. Immediately pill popping or putting the decision in another’s hands (even if it’s a medical professional) will only bandage the problem temporarily. Understanding causes has the potential to resolve issues completely rather than suppress temporariliy. Of course, if your issue is chronic or more serious than occasional heartburn then you may need to see a medical professional for further diagnosis and treatment. Even still, remember to have discussions, ask questions and continue to be your own health advocate because no one knows your body better than you!
Myth Busting Heartburn
When you have heartburn it is likely someone within earshot will suggest you take an antacid. You should know that it is a “serious medical misconception” to think that acid reflux is caused by “excessive amounts of acid in your stomach,” when in fact it’s typically a problem of “having too little acid in your stomach” (Mercola, 2014). Authors of the book, Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You further explain by stating, “This is no secret. This is a well-documented, but little-appreciated medical fact. It has been confirmed in the scientific literature repeatedly and frequently throughout the last one hundred years.” So why is it so unknown with our friends and family? The authors pointedly state, “Indigestion/heartburn/GERD is a multibillion-dollar cash cow for the pharmaceutical industry.” We know from history with Big Tobacco there are simple truths about industry. When there are big-money interests at stake, the story to the rest of us get is carefully shaped. So whether you subscribe to this line of thinking or not, give it careful consideration before popping a pill sold as a miracle solution.
Dr. Joseph Mercola provides further evidence for this in one of his articles when he says, “It’s important to understand that acid reflux is not a disease caused by excessive acid production in your stomach; rather it’s a symptom more commonly related to: Hiatal hernia or Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection.” He elaborates, “There are over 16,000 articles in the medical literature showing that suppressing stomach acid does not address the problem” (Mercola, 2014).
So what is a person with heartburn to do first? Start with what you can control. You can choose what to eat and drink. “Eating large amounts of processed foods and sugars is a surefire way to exacerbate acid reflux as it will upset the bacterial balance in your stomach and intestine. Instead, you’ll want to eat a lot of vegetables and other high-quality, ideally organic, unprocessed foods. Also, eliminate food triggers from your diet. Common culprits here include caffeine, alcohol and nicotine” (Mercola, 2014).
The bottom line is, “Ultimately, the answer to heartburn and acid indigestion is to restore your natural gastric balance and function” (Mercola, 2014). You can do this by eating a whole-food, nutrient-dense diet. Sure, it might take some effort but most things worth doing, take effort. Healing with real food can and does happen every day. The founder of medicine himself, Hippocrates says, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Is this everyone’s solution? Maybe not. Are there some severe cases that require a medical professional to attend to? Sure. However, at times we can be quick to look for the miracle pill when there are some simple, alternative solutions.
What can you avoid to decrease heartburn? First things first, consider the cause. Start simply by making behavior changes, consider the food you eat and understand medication side effects — all of which can have a big impact on eliminating occasional heartburn from your life for good.
Choose what you can do nutritionally to improve your health. That might include avoiding certain foods that trigger heartburn but even before eliminating what you eat, try to address how you eat.
For one, eat smaller portions during the day instead of gorging at one meal. At times, we have a tendency to go without during our busy daily actives and then overeat at night. Avoiding eating your largest meal at dinner and gulping it down due to day-time deprivation (Axe). Stressful eating habits like eating while standing or while doing other tasks, is an unconscious habit. Instead, eat with your nose and eyes first. Take three deep, relaxing breaths before eating. Smell the food, take a moment of appreciation and then begin to eat. Doing so puts the body in a parasympathetic state that starts the digestive process in the brain where it’s meant to begin.
Dealing with heartburn doesn’t necessarily mean you have to avoid all acidic foods, all the time. It’s more about taking note of what you’re eating prior to experiencing any painful symptoms (Axe). Get in tune with what jives with your bio-individuality. Keep a food journal for a few days to help you make a clear connection to the types of foods you are eating and how they make you feel. Then eliminate the worst offenders for immediate pain relief. Next, consider quality nutritional supplements to help you improve the conditions in your body so you are able to enjoy real food that supports you.
Foods that are naturally healing to the body, such as fermented vegetables and cultured dairy, can also address the issue of heartburn. These foods can help support optimal body function such as increasing beneficial, healthy gut bacteria. If you need more support to get you back on the path of health consider a few quality supplements. Your body is your only home while you are here on earth, it deserves quality so you can produce quality results in your work and your life. Supplements like digestive enzymes, HCL, Probiotics and L-Glutamine are some options to consider. For some, adding one of these options to their routine has helped resolve occasional, non-severe heartburn completely.
Finally always consider the source. Why is this symptom showing up in your body? Evaluate what choices you might be able to make to resolve the symptom of heartburn. Consider that, “Certain prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can also cause heartburn…. Common culprits include anxiety medications and antidepressants, antibiotics, blood pressure medications, nitroglycerin, osteoporosis drugs, and pain relievers” like aspirin or ibuprofen (Mercola 2014). “It’s possible that heartburn symptoms can worsen from taking medications, such as the birth control pill or certain drugs used to treat high blood pressure” (Axe).
The Sum of It
To a certain extent, we all have “fix-it syndrome” in this modern life. We are busy, we are stressed and most of us are time-starved. It makes sense we want a quick fix. Not to mention the human brain is wired to first want the path of least resistance. When something goes wrong, the first thing we do is look outside ourselves to see who can fix it. The same is true for our health when we look to our doctor to “fix it” for us. Ask any medical professional, they aren’t there to fix us solely on their own. Instead they help walk us down a path of discovery to guide us back to optimal function. If action is required, it’s up to us to follow through. As much as we’d like there to be, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to most of the disfunction that occurs in our bodies. Taking on this responsibility might sound daunting but the challenge is to view it as empowering. As Dr. Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
What if we held the answers within ourselves to be well? Consider it for a moment. We have so much power within ourselves: our thoughts, our actions and our habits can put us on the path health and healing. By looking at what occurs with heartburn in the body, shattering a few myths about it and providing some tools to help you resolve these painful symptoms I ask you to consider a new viewpoint: Try on this idea: “What if I could fix it myself and have a life free from the worries of heartburn?” What would you do if this were true? Do it, take the action and test the theory to see what’s possible for you.
Axe, J. (N.d.) 4 Natural Heartburn Remedies that Work! Retrieved from: https://draxe.com/heartburn-remedies/
Kresser, C. (April 2010). Get rid of heartburn and GERD forever in three simple steps. Retrieved from: https://chriskresser.com/get-rid-of-heartburn-and-gerd-forever-in-three-simple-steps/
Mercola, J. (April 2014). Fifteen Natural Remedies for the Treatment of Acid Reflux and Ulcers. Retrieved from: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/04/28/acid-reflux-ulcer-treatment.aspx
Mercola, J. (April 2009). News Flash: Acid Reflux Caused by Too Little Acid, Not Too Much. Retrieved from: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/04/25/news-flash-acid-reflux-caused-by-too-little-acid-not-too-much.aspx
Wright, J. and Lenard, L. (2001) Why Stomach Acid is Good for You: Natural Relief from heartburn, indigestion, reflux & GERD. Lanham, Maryland.
WebMD. (Jan. 2017). Indigestion Pain, Symptoms, Remedies, Causes and More. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/heartburn-gerd/indigestion#1
WebMD. (Sept. 2015). Is it heartburn or GERD? Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/heartburn-gerd/guide/is-it-heartburn-gerd