What is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is one of the most common, most misunderstood and mistreated afflictions people experience daily.
You have probably experienced the uncomfortable feeling more commonly referred to as heartburn or acid reflux. The National Institute of Diabetes and Kidney Digestive Diseases reports that 25 million people experience symptoms of GERD daily.
In fact, GERD is the most common digestive issue in the United States.
So many Americans experience heartburn that gastrointestinal drugs are the second-highest selling pharmaceutical in the country—over 5 billion dollars worth are sold every year. (That 5 billion doesn’t even take into account the over-the-counter antacids that are hugely popular remedies purchased by Americans like gum)
Heartburn has been a blanket term in the past for something that wasn’t really taken seriously, an unpleasant but not-too-serious side effect of grandma’s famous lasagna. But today we know that heartburn and GERD can lead to serious medical complications like scarring, ulceration, constriction, and in the worst cases, cancer of the esophagus.
Recent studies have shown that this disease not only affects the sensitive esophageal lining in the throat but moves downwards as well, contributing to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
IBS is the second most common reason for taking sick days, second only to the common cold!
I get heartburn. Do I have GERD?
Acid reflux and “heartburn” are symptoms of poor stomach function, caused most commonly by GERD. If you experience symptoms like acid reflux or uncomfortable heartburn, you are likely a victim of the most common underlying digestive issue— Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
What’s the misunderstanding here?
Heartburn has been previously thought by health practitioners to be caused by an excess of stomach acid. This is still a common misconception that is causing millions of Americans to mistreat and cover up their severe symptoms on a daily basis.
Today, the prevailing scientific research has shown that GERD is NOT caused by an excess of stomach acid but a dysfunction of the sphincter muscle (lower intestinal valve, LES), which separates the stomach from the bottom of the esophagus. If functioning correctly, the LES opens to allow food and liquids swallowed to pass into the stomach. It also opens when we burp, but those are the only times the LES should open.
When the LES isn’t functioning correctly, it will open when we are not eating or burping. This allows stomach acid into the esophagus, allowing the acid to damage its sensitive lining, which, unlike the stomach, has no protection against acid.
So the takeaway here is that the amount of acid we have in our stomachs does not matter. It is the DYSFUNCTION OF THE LES, the only thing that protects our delicate esophagus from stomach acid, that is the cause of GERD, and NOT an excess of acid.
Unfortunately, for decades, the medical industry has focused its efforts on how to reduce stomach acid in patients who are suffering from heartburn and GERD. Now, it is well known and understood that the amount of acid in our stomachs is not the underlying cause. Yet, the widespread treatment approach remains the same. The truth is, our stomach should be very acidic. The high acid environment is essential for adequately breaking down foods, killing bacteria and fungi, as well as mineral absorption. When the acid is lowered, these functions suffer.
Food allergies and intolerances can also worsen GERD. Allergies and intolerances to food lead to an immune reaction, which then causes increased inflammation. Inflammation then leads to irritated tissues
Read more about Food Allergies and Intolerances HERE!
What researchers and doctors should be asking is what is causing the LES to stop working properly?
What causes acid reflux and GERD?
It is now accepted by the medical community that GERD is, in fact, caused by an increase in intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). Bloating, or gastric distention causes acid reflux by physically pushing the stomach contents, including the acid, through the LES and into the esophagus.
Factors that contribute to gastric distention are known to include overeating, obesity, physically bending over or lying down after eating and eating spicy or fatty foods. But beyond these factors, there are two primary causes of Increased intra-abdominal pressure (IAP):
Carbohydrate Malabsorption leading to bacterial overgrowth, resulting in IAP and causing reflux
But what causes this in the first place? LOW STOMACH ACID.
Another shocking reason for having a dysfunction of the LES is low stomach acid. Yes, when the stomach acid becomes low, the LES relaxes. This is because high stomach acid signals to the LES to close. As you can see, our current therapies for GERD can worsen the problem of heartburn as well as interfere with proper nutrient absorption, food breakdown, and killing foreign bacteria and fungi (as we mentioned previously).
Aside from acid reflux medications that lower stomach acid, people can have lower stomach acid for various reasons (which we will dive into later).
Low stomach acid contributes to bacterial overgrowth (no matter what your carbohydrate intake is) AND carbohydrate malabsorption.
Low stomach acid
bacterial overgrowth & carbohydrate malabsorption
Acid Reflux & GERD
Let’s take a closer look here…
Low Stomach Acid levels lead to bacterial overgrowth.
One of stomach acid’s primary functions is to stop bacterial overgrowth. At a normal pH, bacteria cannot survive in our stomachs for long. But when stomach acid is low, the pH of our stomach fluid rises, and bacteria can thrive. This leads to bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine (also known as SIBO pronounced “See-Bow.”
Acid-suppressing drugs, which are prescribed for acid reflux, actually promote bacterial overgrowth. Bacterial overgrowth exasperates the symptoms of heartburn as well as lead to gas, diarrhea, intestinal cramping, undigested food in stool, and other symptoms.
Low Stomach Acid leads to Carbohydrate Malabsorption.
Another function of stomach acid is aiding in the digestion of carbohydrates (as well as proteins and fats) by stimulating the release of pancreatic enzymes in the small intestine. Without sufficient stomach acid, these pancreatic enzymes will not be adequately secreted, and therefore carbohydrates will not be broken down properly.
and when carbohydrates are not broken down properly, we experience…GAS.
The carbohydrates leftover in the small intestines that have not been digested or absorbed correctly will produce gas through bacterial fermentation.
And gas increases intra-abdominal pressure – which causes, you guessed it! Acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD.
Stress and Low Stomach Acid
Another very common cause of lower stomach acid is, you guessed it, stress! When we are continually stressed, we are in a state of “fight, flight, or freeze.” This is also known as being in a “sympathetic” state. To turn on our digestive processes, we need to be relaxed and in a “parasympathetic” state. These two states are controlled by our autonomic nervous system, and our mental-emotional state influences our autonomic nervous system.
Stress can decrease the amount of prostaglandins our body creates. Prostaglandins are protective of our stomach tissues. When they are lowered, our stomach is more vulnerable to the acid within it.
Other Causes of Low Stomach Acid
Nutrient deficiencies such as zinc can also lead to low stomach acid. Why? Well, zinc is required for the body to make hydrochloric acid (aka stomach acid). If a person is deficient in zinc, which is very common, it can impair their ability to produce sufficient stomach acid. In order for a person to absorb zinc, from food (or supplements), an acidic stomach environment is required, which exacerbates the issue of low stomach acid. As you can see, this issue can become a vicious cycle without proper intervention.
Lastly, as we age, our body naturally produces less low stomach acid. This is why GERD is much more common in the elderly. Luckily there are a variety of ways to increase stomach acid and treat GERD naturally.
How should Acid Reflux be Treated?
The acid-suppressing drugs that are widely used to treat acid reflux/GERD are working against your stomach! We know that it is not an excess of acid in the stomach, which is causing GERD, but actually, the opposite. Not only that, but they also come with a range of ugly side-effects, including intestinal dysbiosis, nutrient deficiencies, and kidney disease.
While these acid-suppressing drugs can relieve the symptoms of acid reflux, they are not getting to the cause and will only make things worse in the long run. People develop life-long dependencies on these drugs and are enormous moneymakers for pharmaceutical companies. So, of course, even though it is widely known that acid reflux is not caused by excess stomach acid, they will continue to sell these drugs to the public to make money.
How to Treat Gerd Naturally
Changing your diet is free, and it targets the cause, not just the symptom.
Some foods are known to worsen acid reflux, including:
- Tomatoes/tomato products
- Spicy foods
- Carbonated drinks
Research has shown that individuals who initiated a low-carb diet significantly decreased their symptoms of acid reflux – equal to the improvement felt by those taking acid surpassing drugs (which we now know just exasperate the problem in the long run).
In some cases, limiting carbohydrate intake has been shown to cure acid reflux and GERD symptoms completely.
In addition to changing your diet, focusing on stress-reduction is vital. As we mentioned before, stress puts people in a state of fight or flight, which prevents proper digestive processes from occurring. Plus, when we are stressed, we breathe up in our chests and do not engage in belly-breathing.
Belly-breathing is a secret weapon for acid reflux as well as the majority of digestive issues. This is because when we belly-breathe, our diaphragm moves downward, which stimulates our vagus nerve. This main nerve regulates our parasympathetic nervous system. Therefore when we belly-breath, we turn on our parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system, which is relaxing, calming, and promotes digestive juices.
Also, belly breathing allows room for our stomachs to move downward. As we mentioned earlier, the increased upward pressure of the stomach leads to acid reflux.
Furthermore, there are many natural herbs and remedies to treat acid reflux naturally. These natural supplements can decrease inflammation, irritation, as well as increase stomach acid and digestive enzymes to optimize digestion and absorption.