This article discusses how to reduce heartburn and acid reflux from a comprehensive functional nutrition approach. It also explains the root causes of heartburn and acid reflux, and the important role that stomach acid plays in digestion, fighting gut infections, and reducing heartburn.
Disclaimer: The purpose of this article and video are purely educational. Do not discontinue medications without consulting with your physician. You bear any risk of taking dietary supplements on your own. Contact us for individualized nutrition therapy at www.nourzibdeh.com/contact-me.
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What is Stomach Acid and Why is it Important
Hydrochloric acid (HCL), also known casually as ‘stomach acid,’ is released from the parietal cells of the stomach as food passes from the esophagus to the stomach.
Stomach acid has several important functions:
- Initiate the digestion of protein. Hydrochloric acid activates the enzyme pepsin which is also released by the cells that line the intestine. pepsin is one of the first and major enzymes that break down the bonds between amino acids so they can get absorbed.
- Improve the absorption of iron. Iron gets oxidized from the ferrous Fe2+ form to the ferric and insoluble Fe3+ form as in enters the stomach. The acidity of the stomach prevents the insoluble Fe3+ form from precipitating and aids its absorption. People with low stomach acid tend to have iron deficiency.
- Enhance the absorption of trace minerals. Stomach acid stimulates the production of picolinic acid from the pancreas which then binds to the trace minerals zinc, selenium, chromium, boron, manganese, molybdenum, and vanadium and aids in their abortions into the bloodstream.
- Promote the absorption of vitamin B12. Vitamin B-12 from food sources like meat is attached to protein. Adequate stomach acidity is needed to liberate vitamin B12 so it can bind to another protein, called intrinsic factor, for it to be absorbed later in the small intestine. People who take acid blocking medications are at 25-60% higher risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency, despite adequate intake.
- Prevent the growth of pathogens. Acidity acts as a barrier that prevents the growth of bacteria and other pathogens. Clostridium difficile, is an infectious bacteria that’s ingested with food. When the acidity is not enough to eradicate it, it passes through the stomach untouched causing an infection. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), where bacteria overpopulates the upper part of the gut, is also associated with low stomach acid.
What Causes Heartburn and Acid Reflux
The cells that line the stomach are designed to tolerate the high acidity whereas the cells that line the esophagus are not. Heartburn or acid reflux happen when the muscle that separates the stomach and the esophagus, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), leaks acid up. Gastroesophagral relfux disease (GERD) is when acid reflux happens chronically.
To combat the heartburn or acid reflux, people and traditional health professionals resort to medications that either neutralize the acid or prevent the stomach cells from producing it. Over the counter pills like Tums are designed to neutralize the acid. H2 blocker medications like ranitidine (Zantac) and famotidine (Pepcid) ‘block’ the stomach cells from producing hydrochloric acid. Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), like Iansoprazole (Prevacid), Omperazol (Prilosec), and Esomeprazole (Nexium), are another set of medications that also block the cells of the stomach from producing HCL.
Sadly, these medications are popular and used without too much consideration of the consequences and long-term side effects. The faulty thought process is that heartburn and acid reflux result from TOO MUCH acid, so the faulty solution is to prescribe medications that lower it further. While they mask the symptom and give temporary relief, they are just a band-aid that distracts from the big picture. The real question is, what is causing the LES muscle to leak the acid to begin with?
Functional medicine and nutrition look at heartburn and acid reflux from a completely different approach. You don’t have heartburn because you have too much acid. You have heartburn because your stomach doesn’t produce enough! If this is the first time you hear this, give yourself a chance to process it.
When your stomach doesn’t produce enough acid to breakdown the bolus of food that arrived from the esophagus, food sits in the stomach and gets fermented (eaten up) by bacteria. The gases that result from fermentation cause stomach to distend and push its content, which is now too acidic for the lining of the esophagus, upward.
When you start popping Tums and over-the-counter Maalox, Zantac, or Nexium, you make the problem worse. You further reduce the production of HCL, food stays longer in the stomach, more fermentation and gas production happen, and symptoms persist or get worse. You pop more and more pills, ask your doctor for a higher and stronger dose, or switch medications in an attempt to find this magical pill that will quite your pain. And you end up suffering from the long-term side effects which are nutrient deficiencies, pathogenic overgrowth, and more inflammation.
Unfortunately, not all doctors are looking at your symptom from a holistic functional perspective. With a short-term shallow approach to heartburn, you will continue to suffer. A functional approach also means a complete assessment of the thyroid. Hypothyroidism is often associated with reduce stomach acid production, heartburn, gas, bloating, and indigestion. I wrote about the thyroid previously HERE and I have a full 1-hour video on thyroid health from a nutrition perspective that you can immediately access for free HERE.
How to Reduce Heartburn and Acid Reflux
Heartburn, or acid reflux, can be a simple complaint or a result of life-long damage to the lining of the stomach and esophagus. If you want to reduce heartburn, it must be done in a comprehensive gut healing approach. Here are 3 things to consider as a starting point to reduce heartburn:
- Do not abuse antacid medications. They mask the symptom, but they don’t solve the problem. If you pop over the counter acid-neutralizing medications (Tums), remember that they are not harmless! If you take a prescription antacid medication, read this article completely, watch the video, and then talk to your doctor about tapering the dose.
- Eat fewer carbohydrates. Bacteria feeds on carbs and sugars, so reducing the amount you eat can help reduce the fermentation, distension, and gas. It’s not a solution on its own as it won’t get to the root of the problem (which is bacterial overgrowth), but it will help with reducing the symptoms. Read my full article on low carbohydrate diets.
- Try digestive enzymes. There many kinds of digestive enzyme products, and they are not all as effective. I use two types in my practice. The first one is a broad spectrum product that contains enzymes that target carbs, sugars, fiber, protein, and fats. The other one is strictly hydrochloric acid. Using both helps me titrate the dose of HCL based on my client’s needs. These products are available on my supplement store, but I highly recommend that you seek individual customized help before trying supplements. You can also try raw apple cider vinegar as a natural food-based digestion booster. Combine 1 tablespoon with 4 ounces water and drink before your meals.
Heartburn can be a result of long-term damage, so it’s absolutely necessary to get to the root of the problem and address it from a functional nutrition perspective. Testing for food sensitivities and eliminating problem foods helped many of my clients. Since heartburn can result from a pathogenic growth like SIBO or H.pylori, you can’t eliminate it permanently unless you eradicate them. Herbal anti-microbial protocols are far less damaging than antibiotics and usually produce good results that I recommend them before harsh antibiotic treatments. Supplements that nourish and heal the lining of the stomach, such as aloe vera and others, must be considered. A complete thyroid health assessment is also needed to rule out an underlying hypothyroidism.
Reducing and permanently eliminating heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD can only happen if you get to the root of the problem. If you’re looking for a nutritional holistic approach to reduce your suffering and get off medications, I can help. In my complimentary Restore your Health Strategy Session, you get a quick assessment of what may be contributing to the problem. Then we can map out your path to healing and restoration. Click HERE to get started.
Disclaimer: The purpose of this article and video are purely educational. Do not discontinue medications without consulting with your physician. You bear any risk of taking dietary supplements on your own. Contact us for individualized nutrition therapy at www.nourzibdeh.com/contact-us.