Why Antacids Will Never Cure Your Heartburn

June 8th, 2009

Why Stomach Acid is Good For You by Jonathan WrightHeartburn, also referred to as acid reflux or indigestion, is one of the many common symptoms of compromised health that we’ve come to accept as normal. According to the National Institute of Health, 20% of Americans suffer from heartburn symptoms at least once per week, and nearly half of these people experience symptoms every day.

As with most health problems, conventional medicine treats the heartburn symptoms of acid reflux without making any effort to understand or address it’s cause. Unfortunately, the popular methods of treating heartburn symptoms actually worsen their most common cause and can potentially lead to significant health issues.

The Irony of Conventional Heartburn and Acid Reflux Treatment

The pain associated with heartburn is caused by stomach acid backing up into the esophagus through the valve at the entry point of the stomach. The lining of the esophagus is not able to handle the extreme acidity of stomach acid, and because of this, acid reflux can cause considerable damage and lead to ulceration and even cancer. It’s commonly believed that acid reflux is caused by excess production of stomach acid, but when you take a closer look at how the stomach functions, this doesn’t make any sense at all.

The production of stomach acid naturally declines with age. In fact, we produce about half as much stomach acid by the time we’re in our forties as we did in our teens. Despite this decline, the incidence of acid reflux increases considerably with age. If acid reflux is far more common with older people who are producing less stomach acid, then how could excessive acid production possibly be the cause?

Children and teenagers tend to produce much more stomach acid than adults and have a very low incidence of acid reflux. As such, it’s obvious that the stomach is very capable of containing high levels of acid without any reflux into the esophagus or symptoms of heartburn. A better explanation of acid reflux is based on the function of the lower esophageal sphincter which is the valve that separates the stomach from the esophagus. As long as this valve is functioning properly, it will prevent stomach acid from refluxing into the esophagus. However, if it’s function is impaired, stomach acid can much more easily make it’s way into the esophagus and cause painful damage to it’s lining.

Ironically, impaired function of the lower esophageal sphincter is often associated with low levels of stomach acid which completely contradicts the basis for conventional heartburn and acid reflux treatments. While there are some cases of acid reflux that are caused by excessive amounts of stomach acid, it’s very rare.

Why Stomach Acid is So Important

Stomach acid breaks down the dense food we eat into small molecules that are absorbed by the intestines and distributed throughout the body. This absorption, which is critical to our health, can only occur when an adequate amount of stomach acid is available to create an acidic environment in the small intestine. If stomach acid levels aren’t high enough, food won’t be fully digested and it’s nutrients won’t be absorbed well. Even the absorption of supplements is impaired when stomach acid levels are low.

People who aren’t absorbing much of the nutrients from the food they eat due to low levels of stomach acid are likely to be suffering from malnutrition, even if they’re overweight. This can lead to a wide variety of conditions and diseases including anemia, heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis. It can also inhibit the digestion of dense proteins into amino acids. Because these amino acids are precursors to the neurotransmitters that promote mental stability, an inadequate production of stomach acid can even result in mood disorders.

Stomach acid also protects us from infection. Because of the extremely acidic environment it creates in the stomach, it prevents intestinal bacteria and fungus from migrating into the stomach, and more importantly, kills infectious organisms and prevents them from entering the intestines and the blood stream. Without this protection, infection from such organisms can result in a wide variety of illnesses and even cause death.

Low levels of stomach acid increase susceptibility to infection and allow more undigested protein molecules to enter the intestines. As a result, the intestinal lining becomes susceptible to damage that can lead to hyperpermeability and allow undigested protein molecules to be easily absorbed into the blood stream. This often provokes immune responses throughout the body that lead to food sensitivities and autoimmune diseases.

The Grave Mistake of Conventional Heartburn Treatment

Based on the symptom chasing mentality of conventional medicine and the misconception that heartburn and acid reflux are caused by excessive levels of stomach acid, the most common treatment protocol for these problems is to reduce stomach acid levels with antacids such as Tums, Rolaids or Alka-Seltzer or acid suppressors such as Nexium, Prilosec or Zantac. While antacids work by simply neutralizing existing stomach acid, suppressants are much more invasive because they directly inhibit the stomach’s ability to produce acid.

The fault with most conventional medical treatments is that they’re aimed at relieving symptoms and do nothing to address the problem that’s causing them. Conventional treatments for heartburn and acid reflux are even more flawed because the symptom relief that they provide comes at the cost of more significant problems. They relieve the pain of heartburn by reducing stomach acid levels, and in turn, reducing the chance of it refluxing through the malfunctioning lower esophageal sphincter. In fact, some heartburn treatments nearly reduce acid levels down to nothing. While this may relieve pain, it worsens the digestion and absorption problems associated with low levels of stomach acid and increases susceptibility to serious health issues.

How to Resolve Heartburn and Acid Reflux Naturally

The best way to avoid heartburn and prevent acid reflux is to support proper function of the lower esophageal sphincter. The following are some practical ways to do this.

  • Drink more water. Dehydration can lead to acid reflux by causing the lower esophageal sphincter to relax.
  • Avoid foods and beverages that can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter. This includes chocolate, coffee, mints, sugar, alcohol and onions.
  • With the agreement of your physician, avoid medications that can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter. This includes bronchodilators such as theophylline, albuterol and ephedrine, and NSAIDs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen. It also includes calcium channel blockers, beta blockers, diazepam, valium, nitrates and demerol. Cigarettes should be avoided as well.
  • Don’t overeat. Excessively large meals put pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter and encourage it to open when it shouldn’t.
  • For the same reason why you shouldn’t overeat, you should also avoid anything that increases intra-abdominal pressure such as bending, heavy lifting and tight clothing.
  • Elevate the head of your bed by 4 to 8 inches. This will keep gravity working in your favor and make it less likely for stomach acid to drain into the esophagus.
  • Get tested for food sensitivities and avoid the reactive foods that may be interfering with the function of the lower esophageal sphincter. If it’s not practical for you to get tested, at least consider a trial of eliminating grains and dairy from your diet. These are the two most likely food groups to cause sensitivities.

It’s also helpful to avoid foods and beverages that can irritate the lining of the esophagus. This includes citrus fruits, tomatoes, spicy foods, coffee and carbonated beverages.

Supplementing with Hydrochloric Acid

Hydrochloric acid is naturally produced by the stomach and is the primary constituent of it’s digestive fluid. It’s commonly available in supplement form and is a convenient way to increase low levels of stomach acid. For people who have a chronic insufficiency of stomach acid, hydrochloric acid supplementation can be a very effective way to improve digestion, absorption and many of the health issues that can be caused by malnutrition. People who need hydrochloric acid supplementation tend to also benefit from digestive enzymes, especially pepsin.

Although hydrochloric acid supplementation is generally safe, it does pose some risk. People who have a damaged gastrointestinal lining could potentially worsen the damage by taking hydrochloric acid. As such, it’s recommended that you find a physician who is knowledgeable about acid reflux and it’s frequent association with low stomach acid levels. If possible, seek out a physician who uses the Heidelberg test to assess your current level of stomach acid production. For more information on this test and to find physicians that use it, visit Heidelberg Medical Incorporated.

Additional Information

For more information on heartburn and acid reflux, I highly recommend that you read Why Stomach Acid is Good For You by Jonathan Wright, MD. Dr. Wright is one of the most widely recognized and appreciated supporters of natural medicine and provides a great deal of information in this book. You’ll find more detailed information about the true cause of heartburn and acid reflux, the many problems caused by the digestive issues associated with low levels of stomach acid, the dangers of popular antacids and acid blockers, and a variety of natural supplements that will help relieve heartburn and prevent acid reflux.

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