Originally published in the Kingston Whig-Standard. Just about everyone gets an occasional case of heartburn, which is bad enough. Suffering from it on a daily basis is not only painful and distracting, but it also puts you at risk of developing esophageal cancer in the future (that’s cancer in the tube that connects your throat to your stomach).
The standard treatment for heartburn is to take medicine that either neutralizes the acid in your stomach or causes your body to produce less acid.
There are two problems with this approach: 1) high acid is rarely the problem and 2) constantly reducing your stomach acid reduces your ability to absorb minerals. That’s probably why the use of acid-blocking medications is associated with a higher risk of osteoporosis.
Yes, you read it right, high acid is rarely the cause of heartburn. At the top of your stomach, there is a small circular muscle. The job of this muscle is to contain your stomach acid, but still allow food to pass through. This muscle relaxes both when stomach acid is high, and when stomach acid is low.
Some people inherit high stomach acid. They are rare. Some foods can cause high stomach acid, too, like coffee. Some foods can also cause that circular muscle to relax.
Most other sufferers of heartburn actually have low stomach acid. There are two common causes of low stomach acid: stress or anxiety and age.
When you are stressed or anxious, your body shuts down digestion and directs that energy to your muscles. Your gut decreases its usual rhythmic contracts, you produce less saliva and your stomach decreases the amount of acid it produces.
Being under stress all the time can cause you to have chronically low stomach acid, and, therefore, chronic heartburn. The cheapest fix for this is to relax already, which, I admit, is easier said than done. However, if you commit to a session of relaxation each day, you will most likely see results pretty quickly.
My favourite form of relaxation to recommend is called progressive muscle relaxation. There is a handout for it on my website at www.natural-route.com/resources, under Articles by other People. It works for people that no other type of relaxation works for.
Acid production also naturally decreases as we age. It’s just a fact of life. For those over age 50, who have any sort of problem with digestion, I recommend something called bitters. Bitters come in many varieties, but they are all bitter herbs soaked in an alcohol-water solution. They taste absolutely terrible, but that intense bitter flavour kicks your digestive system into gear — you salivate, your stomach pumps out acid and the muscles of your digestive system pick up the pace.
For many people, heartburn is not caused by just one factor. Often stress and age coincide. There is also another common cause of heartburn that’s in a category of its own: H.pylori.
H. pylori is a bacteria that lives in the stomach and can cause ulcers. This smart little bug alters the acidity of its victim’s stomach to suit its own needs. Most people who have H.pylori in their stomachs don’t notice anything, but sometimes it causes heartburn. There is a simple test for H. Pylori called the urea breath test. You can also do a blood test, but the breath test is much more effective.
Never stop an acid-blocking medication cold turkey. You will suffer terribly because you experience something called rebound acidity — your stomach produces an abundance of acid. Always reduce your dosage gradually, over time.
In the throes of an attack of heartburn, you just want relief. Taking antacid periodically will not hurt you, but I recommend trying something called deglycerated licorice first. It’s often called DGL, and can be found as tablets in health food stores. When you chew and swallow the tablet, it produces a slime (for lack of a better word), that creates a protective coating for your esophagus.
If you suffer from heartburn, you can take a pill that will make your symptoms go away and protect you from getting cancer. However, it make increase your chances of developing osteoporosis. Treating the cause of your heartburn avoids that risk and may have other health benefits as well.
Andrea Hilborn is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor,