A new study in the journal Circulation found proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), a popular drug used to relieve acid reflux, could contribute to cardiovascular disease. This isn’t the first study to show these and other acid reflux drugs can create serious health problems.
Heartburn drugs are a multi-billion dollar industry fueled by millions of people who reach for them to relieve post-meal misery. But that temporary relief comes with potentially serious long-term consequences.
Is Too Much Stomach Acid Really the Problem?
You probably recall a time after a big meal when your esophagus felt on fire. You were miserably stuffed, bloated, and you maybe started freaking out that you were coming down with a sore throat. You stopped by your drugstore to pick up a cherry-flavored antacid, and when it didn’t kick in you took a second… and a third… until that awful feeling finally subsided.
The medical industry refers to this as gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), more commonly called heartburn or acid reflux. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) underlies this problem.
Conventional wisdom says GERD occurs when too much HCl, or stomach acid, splashes upwards toward your esophagus, creating burning and discomfort. So you take an antacid to reduce stomach acid and relieve the burning.
However, in his book Why Stomach Acid is Good For You, Dr. Jonathan Wright argues too little – not too much – stomach acid creates GERD. Think about it: older people make less HCl and are more likely to suffer GERD.
Here’s what happens. You need enough HCl to activate enzymes that break down protein. Inadequate amounts of HCl can’t always activate those enzymes, so that chicken breast (or whatever protein you ate) doesn’t sufficiently break down in your stomach like it should.
“Stomach acid stays in the stomach and builds up,” says Dr. Jonny Bowden in his book The Most Effective Natural Cures on Earth, “so we end up with more acid in our stomach that can potentially reflux back up into the esophagus.”
A study in Gastroenterology similarly questioned whether too much HCl was the culprit for GERD. When stomach acid flowed freely into rats’ esophagi, damage did not occur for several weeks. Researchers surmised if stomach acid were really the problem, esophagus damage would occur almost immediately in this situation.
Inadequate stomach acid also sets the stage for gut issues. Your stomach is protein’s first stop for digestion. When it can’t do its job, that undigested protein goes to your small intestine, which has other jobs and isn’t always equipped to handle protein breakdown.
That undigested protein can create numerous problems including inflammation, bacteria overgrowth, and leaky gut.
Rather than help the problem, antacids sequester what little HCl you have, further hampering protein breakdown. So you pay the price for short-term relief with increased risk for GERD, gut issues, and other long-term consequences.
Relieve GERD without Drugs
I know how tempting reaching for an antacid can become when you’re suffering acid reflux. GERD is a multifactorial issue, and I’m not suggesting an easy solution. But I don’t think over-the-counter antacids and pharmaceutical drugs are the answer.
I’ve found these nine strategies can help naturally relieve GERD without resorting to harmful drugs.
- Become lean. As if you need another reason to ditch those frustrating extra pounds. Among its other problems, a study in The American Journal of Gastroenterology found that being “overweight or obese are strong independent risk factor[s] of GERD symptoms.” A combo of lean protein, healthy fats, leafy and cruciferous veggies, and slow-release high-fiber starches at every meal helps stabilize blood sugar and optimize fat-burning hormones.
- Minimize or eliminate problem foods. Certain foods relax the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), permitting stomach acid to regurgitate into your esophagus. According to Web MD these problem foods include coffee, tea, spicy foods, citrus foods, and chocolate. I know: some of these are my favorites too, but for relief, try to at least temporarily eliminate them.
- Drink enough water at the correct times. “Some researchers theorize heartburn is a sign of an internal water shortage, especially dehydration in the upper part of the GI tract,” says Bowden. Here’s the thing: too much water during meals can further dilute your stomach acid, further contributing to insufficient protein breakdown. Go easy on liquid during meals; otherwise, drink up!
- Dump the Processed Carbs. Several studies find reducing or eliminating sugar and other high-carbohydrate foods can relieve GERD. One in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found carbohydrates might contribute more to GERD than coffee or fat, and that a low-carbohydrate diet improves GERD. A later study in Digestive Diseases and Sciences also concluded a very low-carbohydrate diet could ameliorate this condition and its symptoms.
- Go Gluten-Free. A study in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology found GERD symptoms were incredibly common among Celiac patients, and when they removed gluten they experienced “a rapid and persistent improvement in reflux symptoms.”You’re not off the hook if you don’t have full-blown Celiac. According to Dr. James Braly, co-author of Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous To Your Health, about 30% of the population have some form of gluten sensitivity that isn’t full-blown celiac but creates many of the same symptoms including GERD. Likewise, Dr. Stephan Wangen, author of Healthier Without Wheat, says nearly one-third of people without the genetic marker for celiac have anti-gluten antibodies in their stool that create the same problems as Celiac. Go completely gluten-free for three weeks and you might become a convert for life.
- Slow down. A study in The American Journal of Gastroenterology found people who plow through their meals suffer more GERD. Easier said than done, but be mindful when you’re eating. Slow down and enjoy your food. Remember it takes 20 minutes for your brain to the message you’re full. Most people are on their second serving at that point.
- Take a digestive enzyme and probiotic. Most people make less digestive enzymes and HCl as they grow older, and a supplemental comprehensive enzyme can improve digestion so protein and other foods more efficiently break down, making GERD and gut problems less likely to occur. Likewise, a professional-quality probiotic supplement can foster healthy intestinal microflora balance and improve digestion.
- Get 7 – 9 hours of sleep. A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found a viscous cycle ensues as a poor night’s sleep increased GERD symptoms the next day, which in turn worsened sleep quality. You need to prepare for sleep. About an hour before bed, turn off electronics (your urgent email will still be there in the morning), take a hot bath with some chamomile tea and Epsom salts, and unwind to experience deeper, more consistent sleep.
- Control stress levels. You’re probably all too knowing that chronic anxiety, worry, and other stressful emotions can adversely impact gut conditions. A study in The American Journal of Gastroenterology found participants who experienced major stress had significant increased blood pressure, pulse rates, and GERD symptoms. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or maybe just a long walk around the block with your dog can relieve the anxiety and stress that contribute to GERD.
Austin GL, et al. A very low-carbohydrate diet improves gastroesophageal reflux and its symptoms. Dig Dis Sci. 2006 Aug;51(8):1307-12. Epub 2006 Jul 27.
Bradley LA, et al. The relationship between stress and symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux: the influence of psychological factors. Am J Gastroenterol. 1993 Jan;88(1):11-9.
Dickman R, et al. Relationships between sleep quality and pH monitoring findings in persons with gastroesophageal reflux disease. J Clin Sleep Med. 2007 Aug 15;3(5):505-13.
El-Serag HB, et al. Obesity is an independent risk factor for GERD symptoms and erosive esophagitis. Am J Gastroenterol. 2005 Jun;100(6):1243-50.
Ghebremariam YT, et al. An Unexpected Effect of Proton Pump Inhibitors: Elevation of the Cardiovascular Risk Factor ADMA. Circulation. 2013 Jul 3. [Epub ahead of print]
Nachman F, et al. Gastroesophageal reflux symptoms in patients with celiac disease and the effects of a gluten-free diet. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2011 Mar;9(3):214-9. doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2010.06.017. Epub 2010 Jun 30.
Souza RF, et al. Gastroesophageal reflux might cause esophagitis through a cytokine-mediated mechanism rather than caustic acid injury. Gastroenterology. 2009 Nov;137(5):1776-84. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2009.07.055. Epub 2009 Aug 4.
Wildi SM, et al. The influence of rapid food intake on postprandial reflux: studies in healthy volunteers. Am J Gastroenterol. 2004 Sep;99(9):1645-51.
Yancy WS Jr., et al. Improvement of gastroesophageal reflux disease after initiation of a low-carbohydrate diet: five brief case reports. Altern Ther Health Med. 2001 Nov-Dec;7(6):120, 116-9.
Bowden, J. (2008). Most Effective Natural Cures on Earth: The Surprising Unbiased Truth about What Treatments Work and Why. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press.
Braly, J, et al. (2002). Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous To Your Health. New York, NY: Avery Trade.
Wangen, S. (2009). Healthier without Wheat: A new understanding of wheat allergies, celiac disease, and non-celiac gluten intolerance. Seattle, WA: Innate Health Publishing.
Wright J (2001). Why Stomach Acid is Good For You: Natural Relief from Heartburn, Indigestion, Reflux and GERD. New York, NY: M. Evans & Company.
© 2013 JJ Virgin & Associates, Inc. Celebrity Nutrition & Fitness Expert JJ Virgin helps clients lose weight fast by breaking free from food allergies. She is the bestselling author of Six Weeks to Sleeveless and Sexy, a Huffington Post blogger, creator of the 4X4 Burst Training Workout & co-star of TLC’s Freaky Eaters. Her latest book, New York Times Bestseller The Virgin Diet: Drop 7 Foods, Lose 7 Pounds, Just 7 Days, is out now. Learn more at www.thevirgindiet.com.