Natural Approaches to Treating Acid Reflux
Digestive problems are a concern for a lot of patients that seek a naturopathic doctor. One digestive issue that is common amongst these individuals has to do with acid reflux. Acid reflux can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as burning in the chest, burping and nausea after eating, abdominal fullness, and overall discomfort following meals. This condition is usually misdiagnosed by conventional medical doctors as a problem of hyperacidity that is of having too much stomach acid. This simplistic view assumes that since there is too much acid coming upwards from the stomach then it is the flow and production of acid we should inhibit. Following this misguided logic will lead us to believe that we need ant-acids or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) which serve to reduce the production and effect of stomach acid.
Of course reducing acid in our stomach and intestines does reduce the symptoms of acid reflux but does not treat its cause and can actually lead to major problems. One of these problems involves the improper breakdown of our food which can lead to nutritional deficiencies of compounds such as vitamin B12 needed by our body for energy, blood formation, and our nervous system. Another much chronic issue has to do with the changing of our gut microflora meaning that changing the pH of the environment where our gut bacteria live can change their composition. This can then lead to overgrowth of certain organisms while others are displaced. The problem can also escalade to a point of compromised immunity as much of our defenses lie in our gut. Finally, drugs that inhibit acid production can in fact eventually lead to chronic acid reflux! This point is explained in the next paragraph.
Getting back to acid reflux, the actual cause of this issue most often has to do with a lack of gastric acid production and not too much production! This is simply because the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) which functions to separate the stomach from our esophagus requires an acidic signal to close thereby not letting stomach acid through and upwards so that there is no irritation of our esophagus. If there is a lack of stomach acid, the LES does not close and acid is free to rise up into the esophagus because of the squeezing and churning action of the stomach while food is being broken down. There is a myriad of reasons why people develop low stomach acid ranging from dietary factors to lifestyle choices and beyond.
To alleviate acid reflux, we can use the following natural approaches:
Only drink fluids that are from fresh fruits and vegetables or plain water and avoid soft drinks, alcohol, and coffee.
Exercise a few days a week or walk for at least 20 minutes a day as weight gain has been associated with a risk for acid reflux. One reason is that weight gain can cause a hiatal hernia which is the protrusion of the stomach through the diaphragm.
Avoid lying down right after meals or eating in this position since it is more likely for acid to pass through the LES in this position.
Use stress reduction techniques such as deep breathing and meditation as stress can lead to problems all along the digestive tract including the stomach. In Chinese medicine, stress can inhibit the stomach’s ability to direct the digestive capacity or energy (Qi) downwards therefore causing a rebelling of Qi upwards and with it the acidic contents of the stomach.
Relax and chew your food slowly. This tip touches on the previous tip’s stress reduction link but also we want to slow down the transit of food so that the stomach has a chance to produce all the acid needed for the oncoming food
Avoid unnecessary use of certain drugs such as muscle relaxants or pain killers since these lower the ability of the LES to close tightly
Focus on and incorporate dark green leafy vegetables into your diet such as: kale, spinach, collards, dandelion greens, etc. These vegetables give the body the signal needed to prime the digestive system and hence increase acid production.
Avoid certain foods such as chocolate, mint, tomatoes, garlic, onion, and spicy foods as they can lead to a lowered tone of the LES thereby letting acid through the sphincter.
Cut or limit fatty foods out of your diet as fat delays the emptying of your stomach and so there is more of a chance for acid to pass upwards through the LES.
Use apple cider vinegar on your meals and salads or use freshly squeezed lemon juice to increase the acid signal to the LES.
There are many medicinal herbs that can be used to correct stomach acid production and flow. The group of herbs notable for increasing stomach acid are the bitter tasting herbs. The bitter taste and action again prime our body to prepare its self for digestion. This means that the body will start to secrete gastric acid and signal to the LES to close. Some herbs that are considered bitter include: burdock root, chamomile, bitter melon, gentian, and dandelion again. You should avoid bitter herbs if you suffer from ulcers as increasing acid production can aggravate your condition. If you choose to use these herbs it is best to consume them as a tea just before sitting down for a meal. This will give your digestive system a chance to secrete the juices it needs before your food is introduced into the system.
As can be noted, there are many natural drug-less approaches to helping yourself if you suffer from acid reflux. Most of the approaches discussed involve minimal investment and side-effects and can lead to healthier choices overall. Overcoming the cause of an ailment for a permanent solution should always be paramount when considering treatment options. This is where naturopathic medicine and natural therapies shine!
Gaby, A. “Nutritional Medicine”, Fritz Perlberg, 2011.
Hoffmann, D. “Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine”, Healing Arts Press, 2003.
Prousky, J. “Textbook of Integrative Clinical Nutrition”, CCNM Press, 2013.