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On Fire: Understanding What Causes Acid Reflux and How to Fix It

By on May 20, 2013

You can feel it coming long before it bubbles up in your throat. Like an internal volcano, acid reflux starts deep down in the gut and moves up to the esophagus and into the mouth, causing pain and distress along the way.

Over 60 million people in the United States suffer from acid reflux or heartburn at least once a month and 25 million people struggle with the discomfort on a daily basis. Many of these daily sufferers are diagnosed with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). People who suffer from GERD may also experience difficulty swallowing, sore throat, dry cough, chest pain and difficulty breathing. There is also a strong link between GERD and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

Understanding GERD

Although you may be under the impression that GERD is caused by an excess of stomach acid, this is not true. In reality, there are two causes of GERD, the first is too little stomach acid and the second is bacterial overgrowth in the stomach and intestines.  Although it is true that acid reflux occurs because of acid refluxing into the esophagus, symptoms occur because the delicate wall of the esophagus is not lined, like the stomach, and cannot take the acid. But, you don’t have to have too much acid in your stomach to produce reflux.

Biomechanically there is a malfunction of a valve that divides the lower end of the esophagus and the stomach. This valve, the lower esophageal valve (LES), is normally open to permit food and liquids to enter the stomach. Other than when we burp, this is the only time that the valve should be open. However, when the LES malfunctions, it allows acid from the stomach to pass back up into the esophagus causing pain and damage.

According to a recent study in Gastroenterology, increased inner abdominal pressure causes the valve to open at the wrong times.

What Causes Inner Abdominal Pressure?

Dr. Norm Rollibard, author of Heartburn Cured makes a strong case for carbohydrate malabsorption, which leads to bacterial overgrowth as the cause of increased abdominal pressure. Paradoxical as it may seem low stomach acid causes carbohydrate malabsorption and bacterial overgrowth.

Stomach acid has the very important job of inhibiting bacterial overgrowth and if there is not enough acid the bacteria will take over. When the pH balance of the stomach is too high, enzymes from the pancreas will not be released, and the carbohydrates will not be broken down adequately. Gas produced in the stomach causes the LES to malfunction.

Understanding H. pylori

Studies support the fact that IBS and GERD may share a common etiology. Researchers have isolated a particular overgrowth of H. pylori as being the main driving force behind both IBS and GERD. According to statistics, over 50% of the world is infected with H.pylori. Because the infection increases with age, over 80% of people 80 years old could be infected. Stomach acid decreases with age, but H. pylori infection increases. This would explain why a greater number of older persons struggle with acid reflux and other GERD symptoms.  Drugs that lower acid in the stomach can actually trigger a bacterial infection, which creates a vicious cycle.

Curing or Suppressing?

Symptoms may be covered up with over-the-counter or prescription medications; these provide only short-term relief. In 2004, Americans spent over $13 billion on medications to suppress the symptoms of acid reflux.  What is worse is that many people find themselves relying on these dangerous drugs for the rest of their lives. Curing a disease does not mean the same things suppressing symptoms.

Successful, long term treatment of acid reflux depends on restoring adequate stomach acid and eliminating the bacterial overgrowth. Both of these things can be done safely and naturally.

Plan for Success

Eat a Low Carbohydrate Diet: One of the first steps to treating acid reflux involves a change in diet. A high carbohydrate diet only exacerbates bacterial overgrowth, which reduces stomach acid. In a Duke University study, researchers found an improvement in acid reflux with the use of a low-carbohydrate diet. A second study, a few years later looked at the influence of a very low carbohydrate diet on obese subjects with GERD. Not only did the diet lower the amount of acid in the esophagus just as well as acid-lowering drugs, but the subjects also lost weight. This is good news because obesity is another reason why the LES may malfunction and is a leading precursor to such conditions as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

When all the recent research is combined, the best approach appears to be a diet that eliminates grains, starchy vegetables and legumes. Fruits and non-starchy vegetables are permitted. Eating whole foods and avoiding processed foods is also necessary for best results.

Include Probiotics:  Because an imbalance in gut bacteria is one of the triggers for acid reflux, establishing healthy gut flora is essential. One way that this can happen is by eating some fermented foods or taking a high quality probiotic supplement. Fermented products such a kefir and yogurt offer vitamins, minerals, protein, amino acids, fats, as well s beneficial bacteria. Because milk products are high in carbohydrate, relatively small amounts are recommended. Unpasteurized raw pickles, sauerkraut or kombucha are other fermented foods that can help restore healthy gut bacteria.

Increase Stomach Acid: You can stimulate acid production in the stomach by taking bitter herbs. These herbs have been used for thousands of years to promote healthy digestion. Studies have confirmed that bitter herbs help increase digestive juice production which includes hydrochloric acid, bile, gastrin, pepsin and pancreatic enzymes. Some common herbs used include fennel, ginger, dandelion, caraway, hops, peppermint and yellow dock.

When making the changes necessary to restore balance, it is helpful to consider restoring the stomach lining. With so much stress put on the stomach, the lining needs to heal. One way to promote healing is to consume homemade bone broths. These broths contain soothing ingredients that will help to reduce inflammation and repair damage.

While the mainstream approach to treating acid reflux involves acid stopping drugs, they actually weaken the resistance to bacterial infection, reduce absorption of necessary nutrients and can cause long-term complications such as other digestive disorders and cancer. Natural approaches, on the other hand, treat the whole body, restore balance and promote long-term health.

Resources: www.gastrojournal.org/article/S0016-5085(07)01843-4/preview
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8547526
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11712463

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