Heartburn is acid indigestion that causes irritation of the esophagus, the tube leading from the mouth to the stomach. Most of us have experienced this sour, burning sensation after over-indulgence with food or drink at one time or another. The stomach lining is usually protected from the effects of its own acid but certain factors cause us to lose this protection. The esophagus, however, is not protected against acid and a backflow from the stomach causes irritation felt in the chest. Each year, tens of millions of North Americans visit doctors for chronic heartburn, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Occasional heartburn does not pose a serious health risk, but if you experience it frequently (two or more times a week) it can be extremely hazardous to your health. Constant irritation of the food pipe can cause ulceration and progress to esophageal cancer, a highly fatal disease now being seen in epidemic numbers, particularly in men 30 to 50 years of age. In the USA, it is the fastest growing cancer.
Normally, a muscular valve at the end of the esophagus keeps food and liquids in the stomach and out of the esophagus. Reflux can occur when the valve relaxes for a moment, when it is faulty or injured, or if a person increases pressure on the stomach by straining, bending over or eating too large a meal. Risk factors include certain medicines, age (older than 65), obesity, pregnancy, a high-fat diet and excessive consumption of caffeine, alcohol or tobacco.
Conventional treatment of acid reflux is with nonabsorbable antacids or antisecretory drugs that block production of stomach acid. Treatment of heartburn with such medications is palliative and does not address underlying conditions that cause acid indigestion. Advertisements proclaim there are no good reasons not to take Zantac, but acid-blockers can cause adverse reactions and disrupt ecological balance in the gut.
Reducing or stopping the natural secretion of stomach acid gives cause for concern. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) secretion by the stomach is required for proper assimilation of minerals and protein and serves to protect against micro-organisms by sterilizing the food we’ve eaten. Stomach acid secretion is also important because it signals the pancreas to secrete its digestive enzymes.
A natural, preventive approach to acid indigestion and reflux incorporates enzymes and often HCl. Rather than shutting down the digestive process with acid-blockers or antacids, enzymes and HCl facilitate digestion.
Most people who suffer from heartburn or acid indigestion think they produce too much acid. However, this is often not the case. Studies show that most people taking antacids are actually deficient in HCl. As we get older, we tend to produce less stomach acid, not more. The same is true for many enzymes and hormones. More than half the population over age 60 have insufficient secretory abilities. According to an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, as many as 30 to 40 per cent of postmenopausal women have low to no stomach acid secretion unless the stomach is given some type of stimulus. If food is not being digested quickly enough and remains in the stomach too long, fermentation acids develop (the bad acids). Also, we may experience a delayed secretion of our own stomach acid after fermentation has occurred, compounding the problem.
So, how do you spell “relief?”
P-r-e-v-e-n-t-i-o-n is the key to eradicating acid indigestion and heartburn. Once you have heartburn, there is little that can be done except to take a drug or wait it out. Bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) or other antacids may provide temporary relief. Do not lie down after eating a large meal since gravity does not favour a weak esophageal sphincter muscle. To avoid trouble at night, do not eat a large meal within three hours of bedtime. Nighttime is for resting the digestive organs, not working overtime. See a physician if heartburn symptoms persist.
Excerpted from Good Digestion by Ken Babal, alive Natural Health Guide #25. Available at health food stores (or call alive books at 800-663-6513).