The Story of Heartburn...it's not what you think!
You may know by now that the functional medicine approach is a little bit different from conventional practices. We want to treat the root cause of the problem...not just mask the symptoms.
So here’s a secret that the functional medicine approach reveals about heartburn.
Are you ready for it?
Heartburn isn’t caused by too much stomach acid like we’ve been taught, it’s actually caused by not enough stomach acid.
And acid blocking drugs, like Prilosec, can actually have dangerous side effects!
I know, it seems a little counter intuitive, but I promise that it will make more sense with a little understanding of digestive physiology.
So let’s start with the basics: stomach acid is actually very important for your health.
It is your body’s first line of defense against pathogenic bacteria and microbes. And a good level of healthy stomach acid will kill those suckers and keep them from turning into an infection!
Humans are also meant to have significant levels of stomach acid because we evolved as omnivorous meat eaters, and we used stomach acid to break down that protein. (In particular, nutrient dense animal protein!)
Aside from water, protein is the most abundant molecule found in the body. In fact, it’s in all of our cells! And it’s stomach acid that begins the process of breaking down those proteins into amino acids, which are then used for cellular health, energy, the immune system, hormones and other foundational aspects of the body.
Without enough protein, we cannot thrive. Without enough stomach acid, we cannot utilize our protein, even if we are eating lots of it.
But somehow, many of us end up with heartburn, GERD or reflux!
How does that happen?! Let me explain.
When there is not enough stomach acid, the stomach has to work harder to break down protein and other foods. It does this by ramping up its churning-and-squeezing muscular action. It has to make a stronger effort to physically break down food, since the chemical breakdown supplied by the stomach acid isn’t working so well.
This overly active churning and squeezing motion in the stomach causes stomach acid to splash back up into the esophagus, which then results in heartburn.
Not how you expected heartburn to happen, right? ;)
Also, when stomach acid is too low, this sends the wrong message to the stomach’s release valve, known as the pyloric sphincter. This is a band of smooth muscle is located at the bottom of the stomach.
When the stomach is done breaking down food, this valve opens and releases the contents of the stomach into the small intestine for further digestion. If the stomach is acidic enough (meaning it has a very low pH level), this low pH acts like a key for the pyloric sphincter, inspiring it to open so food can pass into the small intestine and digestion can continue easily.
Take a moment to digest that. (Pun intended.)
Alternatively, if the pH is too high and the stomach is not acidic enough, the pyloric sphincter valve doesn’t want to open, which means the food can’t drop down into the small intestine. Meanwhile, the muscular action of the stomach is churning along, pushing the stomach acid back up into the esophagus.
This causes all those yucky symptoms like throat irritation, a persistent cough, and the burning experience of acid coming up to where it doesn’t belong.
So, if heartburn is caused by too little stomach acid, it doesn’t make sense to treat it with medication like Prilosec, which blocks further acid production. It may address the symptoms to some degree, but it has little more than a band-aid effect, and can actually have very negative consequences.
In fact, acid blocking drugs (proton pump inhibitors or PPIs) are among some of the most prescribed medicines, yet come with a frightening list of side effects. Stanford researchers did a robust study of 2.9 million people and concluded that PPIs more than double the risk of death from a cardiac event. They are also associated with increased risk of kidney disease and dementia.
PPIs lower stomach acid when there is already too little of it. Not enough stomach acid can lead to poor health because it impairs the absorption of protein and important nutrients like iron and B vitamins.
And when stomach acid is insufficient, infectious microbes aren’t killed upon entry and can take root in the body. This may develop into parasitic infections, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), a disrupted microbiome or a host of other problems that can arise from poor gut health.
Because the gut is your foundation for wellness, achieving a healthy level of stomach acid is an important step in supporting the health of your brain and body.
So, after learning all of this...do you suspect that you have low stomach acid?
If so, here are some tips for naturally increasing stomach acid production:
- Eat fermented vegetables, like raw sauerkraut or kimchi. You can take a few bites before meals to stimulate acid production in your stomach.
Enjoy the fermented beverage Kombucha (it’s yummy!)
Squeeze lemon into your water or add a tablespoon of raw apple cider vinegar instead
Use the botanical supplement, digestive bitters.
Supplementing directly with HCl (hydrochloric acid) tablets. This can be an effective way to increase stomach acidity, but should only be done under the guidance of a qualified nutrition professional or healthcare provider, as it is contraindicated for some.
Experiment with these tips and see which one works best for you.
So remember, stomach acid isn’t the enemy! Even though conventional practices indicate that heartburn is caused by too much stomach acid, it’s actually caused by too little.
If you’re looking for support as you recover from heartburn, GERD or acid reflux, I invite you to a FREE consultation with me. Let’s get to the root of your digestive discomfort and heal it together...for good.
Sign up for your free consultation HERE