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Most adults will experience heartburn and acid reflux at least once in their life. I’m sure you’ve been familiar with the feeling at least once or twice. Feeling heartburn once in a while after eating something particularly greasy or acidic is okay. However, acid reflux and heartburn has become a bit of an epidemic and this is not normal. In fact, one in five people experience heartburn symptoms on a weekly basis. So, why are heartburn, acid reflux, indigestion, and other digestive issues so common nowadays? It’s time we get to the root cause and utilize natural heartburn home remedies that actually work!
In the world of functional medicine, our job is to understand the root cause of any and every disease. In the case of heartburn and acid reflux, there are many common causes and treatments. Unlike the Western medicine approach, which often “bandaids” acid reflux symptoms, functional medicine looks for the root cause and pursues long-term healing!
Heartburn and acid reflux are the most common signs of Gastrointestinal Reflux Disease, or GERD. Heartburn is described as a burning sensation behind the breastbone, while acid reflux is often a regurgitation of food.
Despite common belief, symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux are actually often triggered by low stomach acid rather than too much. This is called Hypochlorhydria (Hydro = low & Chlorhyde = hydrochloric acid).
When levels of stomach acid are less than optimal, the stomach and digestive tract are unable to properly digest food. As a result, food sits in the stomach far too long, turns rancid, and triggers feelings of indigestion. Think of it this way: what would happen if you left a tupperware of food in a 98.6℉ environment (body temperature) for a day? It would likely spoil and putrefy well before the end of the day. This is exactly what happens to the food in our stomachs when enough stomach acid isn’t produced.
Acid reflux occurs when the contents of your stomach that have not been broken down by stomach acid are pushed back up into the esophagus. The acidity of the contents then burns the esophageal lining, which causes that burning sensation, also known as heartburn.
Now once in a while, this isn’t a huge problem. But for so many Americans, acid reflux and heartburn are occuring on a weekly, if not daily basis. And this isn’t only when eating acidic or fatty foods! When heartburn and acid reflux becomes the norm, it then turns into GERD. After too many bouts of acid reflux, the exposure to stomach acid damages your esophagus. It causes dysfunction of the lower esophageal valve that separates the esophagus and stomach. This valve is supposed to keep the acidic contents of your stomach contained. Once the valve becomes damaged, the food and acid are able to make their way up to your esophagus on a chronic basis.
This continues the cycle of further damaging your esophagus, which further perpetuates more acid reflux.
Now that you know you actually need more stomach acid in order to cure the root of heartburn, let’s break down what stomach acid actually is and why it’s so important. Stomach acid is actually a super strong acid called hydrochloric acid (HCL). It’s so strong in fact, that if it’s poured on the skin, it can cause severe chemical burns. This acid is an essential part of the digestive process, as it’s used to break down the food in your stomach. But this is not its only job! Stomach acid also breaks down protein, aids in vitamin and mineral absorption (especially vitamin B12), and fights bacteria and parasites that enter our digestive tract through food.
Because it’s actually involved in many processes outside of breaking down the food we eat, the symptoms of low stomach acid reach further than solely heartburn and acid reflux. Low stomach acid levels can also cause imbalances in your gut bacteria and nutrient deficiencies. In fact, this imbalance accounts for the majority of digestive symptoms and results in difficulty removing bacteria and viruses in food and susceptibility to infections due to irritation of the gut lining.
Your stomach acid levels are connected to the gut microbiome, which is the command center for your health and is responsible for the absorption of key vitamins and minerals.
There are many common causes of heartburn and acid reflux, most of which are due to stressful and overwhelming lifestyles. In a way, this is actually good news. It means there are practical steps we can take to improve heartburn and acid reflux.
By identifying the cause of your heartburn and acid reflux, you can learn the best course of action. Luckily, there are many natural remedies to reduce heartburn and acid reflux!
There are countless over-the-counter treatment options for heartburn and acid reflux. Unfortunately, many, if not all, of these options simply mask symptoms and ignore the root cause.
Remember, chronic heartburn and acid reflux occurs when you don’t have enough stomach acid. The burning sensation comes from your stomach contents that have not been completely broken down refluxing back up into your esophagus, not from the stomach acid itself. It might feel like you have too much acid, but it’s actually due to not having enough.
Common treatments like antacids, PPI’s, and Pepto-Bismol, continue to decrease stomach acid production. Without the acid, even when food refluxes into the esophagus, it doesn’t produce the burning sensation associated with heartburn. As a result, you’ll likely experience temporary relief, but your body will quickly learn to depend on these OTC medicines for any kind of relief.
You’ll continue to lessen the amount of hydrochloric acid in your stomach, your stomach contents will not break down properly and reflux into the esophagus, the acidic contents will damage your esophageal valve, which will then lead to more heartburn, which will then lead to you reaching for quick treatments more often than not. Simply put: the more you use these “bandaid approaches,” the more you’ll need them.
Do you crave sour foods, such as citrus and sauerkraut? Do you like grapefruit juice? If you do, and they set well on your stomach, then you may have too little HCL. If you do not like acid foods, then you may have too much HCL.There’s a simple way to detect low stomach acid at home by consuming fresh lemon juice if you aren’t sure if you are depleted
Step 1: When you have stomach pain, take 1 tbsp. of lemon juice. If this makes the pain leave, you may have too little stomach acid instead of not enough. If it makes your symptoms worse, then you may have too much stomach acid.
Step 2: If your pain increased after the lemon juice test above, do not do the HCL test with betaine HCL supplementation (mentioned below). You could have an ulcer or too much stomach acid.
Step 3: If you aren’t sure, repeat the next time you feel pain and observe how you feel
Instead of masking the symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux, functional medicine digs deep below the surface, searching for the root cause. When you address the root cause, you heal the body on a foundational level. For this reason, I recommend these natural remedies for short-term relief and long-term healing:
HCL tablets increase the amount of stomach acid in the body. And as you’ve learned, too little stomach acid is actually a root cause of heartburn. When taken with meals, HCL can help digest food and absorb nutrients properly, reducing the risk of GERD symptoms and nutrient deficiencies.
For this test, I suggest working closely with a functional medicine practitioner. Without solving the root of the problem, this will not result in any long-term solutions and can be dangerous. The idea is to keep increasing the dose until you feel the warmth that indicates that the dose is too high for you. Your ideal dose would be one less pill than the dose that caused warmth.
Step 1: Observe how you feel. If you feel warmth in your stomach, then you didn’t need it
Step 2: If you feel fine (or better than usual), take two capsules at your next meal and observe your reaction. If you feel warmth with two pills, then that is too many, and your ideal dose is one capsule.
Step 3: If you don’t feel warmth, then take three capsules at the next meal and observe your reactions, and so on.
Fresh aloe vera juice is a natural anti-inflammatory. It also provides many vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy digestive tract and stomach acid production. The same anti-inflammatory properties that help a sunburn can also soothe your esophagus!
Ginger contains calming and soothing properties to naturally relieve gut irritation. In the case of heartburn and acid reflux, its phenolic properties, which are compounds containing antioxidants, reduce inflammation and the risk of acid traveling up the esophagus.
You have probably heard of the hundreds of uses for apple cider vinegar from improving digestion and energy, to cleaning your home! Apple cider vinegar is a fermented liquid rich in protein and enzymes that can help break down bacteria in food, making it ideal for improving stomach acid naturally. Raw apple cider vinegar can increase stomach acid levels because its acidic properties introduce more acid into the digestive tract. It is also helpful in reducing symptoms from acid reflux which is common when stomach acid is out of balance. In addition, most individuals can see significant improvement with diabetes and high blood sugar from regularly consuming apple cider vinegar.
Braggs Brand: Dilute 1-2 tsp with water and drink it before your meal. Without water or another solvent, apple cider vinegar can damage the enamel on your teeth.
Drinking chamomile tea is a great way to reduce emotional and physical stress- both of which contribute to heartburn and acid reflux. Sipping on tea, away from meals, is an effective heartburn home remedy.
Food sensitivities are inflammatory to the gut. So, identifying and eliminating any food sensitivities is key to managing and healing heartburn and acid reflux. For more information on food sensitivity testing, click here.
In addition to identifying food sensitivities, healing the gut lining is a necessary step. Limit inflammatory foods in the diet and introduce gut healing foods like bone broth, coconut oil, sauerkraut, and raw honey. I also encourage you to work with a functional medicine practitioner to come up with a customized plan to heal from the inside out. If you aren’t sure where to start, check out my programs specific to healing leaky gut the right way!
There’s no doubt heartburn and acid reflux is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and irritating. But, before you run for the Tums next time, consider the common causes of heartburn and acid reflux. On a foundational level, how can you best support your digestive system, while relieving symptoms? Consider using these natural remedies to bring relief and heal heartburn and acid reflux for good!
And if your heartburn and acid reflux persists, I definitely encourage you to work with a functional medicine practitioner to dig deeper to find the root cause. The exact source of why you don’t produce enough stomach acid may be unique to you. This is where functional medicine testing and a comprehensive plan customized to you will be of most benefit! I welcome you to take a look at the programs tab to learn more about how I can help you.
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-Nikki Yelton, RD
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