Heartburn and GERD are very common complaints affecting millions of people. To me, that’s insane and the treatments for heartburn/GERD can be infuriating because it focuses on taking care of the symptoms – never getting down to the root cause and causing long-term digestive issues.
I’m going to be talking about a different approach to heartburn, not a new one, but a different one from common conventional thinking. When you first think of heartburn or GERD, you are most likely thinking “TOO MUCH ACID! It’s coming up my throat because it’s too much.” But actually, Dr. Wright who studied heartburn + GERD and wrote a book about it, found that the majority of people who suffer from this have low stomach acid.
Naturally, there is a higher percentage of people of older people with heartburn complaints and that can be because stomach acid naturally declines with age. Hence, the stomach function can decrease. It is possible to have TOO much stomach acid, especially if you are always stressed, as stress increases stomach acid. But, the majority of the time, it was shown to not be the case.
Regardless of stomach acid, no matter how much or how little, any that comes up will cause pain and harm to the esophagus. Our esophagus is not built to withstand acid. We should be looking at the lower esophageal sphincter…why is it dysfunctional? Why isn’t it staying shut? These are the questions you need to ask your doctor.
The theory behind it goes that because there is a lower stomach acid problem, bacteria can stay alive (versus if you had normal amount of stomach acid – it would kill the bacteria), so there could be a case of SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), which then can begin the domino effect of heartburn because of the gas build-up built by the overgrowth of bacteria.
Even studies show that antibiotics can help with GERD by strengthening the esophageal sphincter and kills the bacteria that is causing the gas build-up that turns into GERD. In a smaller study, the fermentation of carbohydrates in the intestines showed the influence it has on the sphincter and increased symptoms of GERD.
These theories that are being studied fall in line with the saying from Hippocrates, “it all begins in the gut.”
What’s so bad about heartburn medicine now?
The most common medications that are prescribed to help with heartburn are meant to decrease stomach acid – therefore, increasing the pH of your stomach. Which allows bacteria to thrive, causing intestinal upset in the long term if the medications are used for a long time. A study in the Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery showed exactly this, with patients taking Prilosec. The stomach is meant to have a low pH.
Not only will you have an increase of bacteria overgrowth with common heartburn medications, but with low stomach acid, you will not be able to digest foods properly, which means you won’t be able to digest + absorb nutrients, which results in long-term nutrient deficiencies. These nutrient deficiencies can further increase the risk of chronic diseases as your cells are not able to be fueled properly, and there is even have a higher risk of depression. Pepsin, which helps break down proteins into the amino acids our body uses, can’t be activated with low stomach acid. Therefore the protein you are eating, you aren’t breaking down. A lack of amino acids = increased risk of depression.
SIBO (small intestine bacteria overgrowth) was shown in a study to affect 50% of people who are taking proton-pump inhibitors, which are medications prescribed to people suffering from heartburn. There is also an increase of bacterial infections, like C. Diff and Salmonella when taking acid suppressing drugs.
Working with a functional medicine doctor on this is CRUICAL because heartburn IS A SYMPTOM. It’s not a disease. So, finding that root cause is necessary to find that health freedom from heartburn.
I’ve read and listened on doctors that giving HCL (hydrochloric acid) and pepsin can be an effective way to increase the stomach acid and relieved heartburn symptoms induced by popular heartburn medications. Even herbs that are more ‘bitter’ can promote a healthy flow of digestive juices, like fennel, dandelion, ginger, milk thistle, and peppermint. This is also where apple cider vinegar and lemon juice can help with symptoms of heartburn.
A study showed success in people with heartburn following a very low-carbohydrate diet. Symptoms were completely gone within a week. Another small study showed that obese individuals improved their GERD symptoms with a low-carb diet.
Obviously, taking your gut health seriously is another step. Eating fermented foods to establish a healthy microbiome, and taking probiotics. Eliminating bacteria promoting foods for a while, like high carbohydrates. GAPS diet is a great diet to do in trying to take back your gut health.
Most of all, you can’t take the approach of just treating symptoms with heartburn. You have to dig further into what is actually causing the dysfunction of the lower esophageal sphincter and what does your stomach acid look like? Work with a functional medicine provider to find your health freedom from GERD.