For decades I've had a personal struggle with heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD. Although my diet has always been pretty healthy, certain "trigger foods" like orange juice, tomatoes and coffee cause painful reflux. Doctors prescribed the "usual" drugs like Zantac and Prilosec to reduce my stomach acid. That didn't make much sense to me since the stomach needs acid to digest proteins. Undigested proteins can cause allergic reactions and disease. I was also worried about the long list of side effects of these drugs.
I went to my naturopathic doctor to find a natural remedy for reflux, heartburn and indigestion. I also did a lot of personal research. Between the two, I have been able to greatly reduce these painful episodes without taking "acid reducing" medication. Since I know there are thousands of people who suffer with this, I'd like to share what has worked for me. This is only MY experience and I am not recommending or prescribing this treatment for you. But perhaps you can learn something from my personal and successful journey, work with your holistic health care practitioner and get similar results. To make sure that you do not have a more serious condition like an ulcer, hiatal hernia, or any form of stomach or esophageal cancer, you may want to have an endoscopy. This procedure allows the doctor to directly view the upper GI tract.
Some Common Reasons for Digestive Problems
• Reflux can happen when your "lower esophageal sphincter", also known as LES, is weakened. This causes the acidic contents of the stomach to flow back into the esophagus. This is known as "reflux".
• Indigestion can be caused by low stomach acid or hydrochloric acid (HCl). Our level of stomach acid decreases with age. HCl breaks down proteins into amino acids. It also kills bacteria and yeast found in food that can cause disease. In addition, HCl stimulates the pancreas and small intestines to produce digestive enzymes and bile needed for the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Taking ant-acids reduces stomach acid further which can severely worsen the problem and prevent all of the above vital activities!
• Digestive problems can be caused by a low level of digestive enzymes. Our level of digestive enzymes decrease with age.
Foods and Beverages to Avoid
• Coffee, tea and cola drinks with and without caffeine (Most herbal teas don't bother me except for ones with relaxing qualities. For me a hot cup of Sleepy Time tea before bed is a guarantee for heartburn. Perhaps it relaxes the LES.)
• Fatty foods, especially meat products (I am not personally bothered by vegetable fats like avocados or raw nuts but you might have a different reaction.)
• Tomatoes and tomato sauce
• Spicy foods
• Citrus fruits (I personally can tolerate lemon, lime and the occasional grapefruit but even the smallest amount of orange juice causes immediate heartburn. You may react differently).
• Peppermint and spearmint
• Don't lay down right after eating or eat a late dinner
• Avoid wearing tight clothing
• Eat small meals (Excess food in the stomach puts pressure on the LES.)
• Sleep with your head elevated by raising the head of your bed or placing a wedge under the mattress
• Avoid stress
• Avoid tobacco products
• Avoid medications that irritate the lining of the stomach like anti-inflammatory drugs or aspirin
Natural Remedies [discuss these with your doctor before trying]
• My naturopath recommended I take a product called "Heartburn Free" by Enzymatic Therapy. It's basically 1000 milligrams of orange peel extract containing d-limonene. It claims to provide 6 months of relief (I got about 3). I took one soft gel every other day for 20 days (a total of 10 pills). It worked very well for me but you must make sure you don't have an ulcer before taking it.
• Another product that really helps me is DGL, also from Enzymatic Therapy. DGL stands for deglycyrrhizinated licorice. I chew 2 tablets twenty minutes before each meal and it really soothes my digestive tract.
• As I posted on May 31, 2009, I take digestive enzymes at the beginning of each meal. My favorite is "Source Naturals Essential Enzymes" which is a vegetarian, broad spectrum blend.
• I find it very helpful to take a few teaspoons of unfiltered, unpasteurized, organic apple cider vinegar twice a day, especially when I eat a meal high in protein and fat. Raw apple cider vinegar (Bragg's is a good brand and is readily available in your local health food store) is known to aid in digestion by stimulating your stomach acid. Sometimes I mix it with a little local honey or stir it into applesauce.
• People who are really low in stomach acid sometimes take Betaine Hydrochloric Acid supplements. I used to take these but I find that the apple cider vinegar works well enough for the amount of protein I eat. Big meat eaters, however, may require supplemental HCL for proper digestion. These should NOT be taken if there is ANY chance that you have an ulcer.
I know it sounds drastic to give up some of your favorite foods and to make difficult life adjustments. You will have to be diligent at first to repair and reverse painful digestive problems. But once you get your heartburn and reflux in control, you may be able to add back some of your favorite things. You'll eventually know what foods and beverages cause the biggest problems for you and those you can occasionally tolerate. For me, I know I can never drink coffee or orange juice. But when I've got things in control, I can enjoy a plate of pasta with tomato sauce and a nice glass of wine. It's all about moderation!
If you take away anything from this article, learn to do your own homework, consider some natural and far more healthy approaches and do not blindly support a multi-billion dollar industry that is trying to convince you that stomach acid is a bad thing. For most of us, it's not the problem, it's the cure!