Looking for heartburn or acid reflux relief? Did you know that popping TUMS or Rolaids like candy could actually make your acid reflux worse? If you’ve ever suffered from acid reflux or GERD, you’re in good company. Sixty percent of Americans suffer from occasional bouts of acid reflux, while up to thirty percent suffer from chronic acid reflux.(1) If you’re lucky enough to never have experienced it, you’ll want to keep it that way. I have personally experienced it only twice and hope never to have it again.
So what exactly is acid reflux? Acid reflux is caused by stomach acid moving back up from the stomach through the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and into the esophagus, where it doesn’t belong. Because the stomach contains hydrochloric acid (HCL), the cells in the stomach are hearty enough to not be burned by stomach acid.(2) The esophagus, on the other hand, is lined with much more delicate cells that are easily burned by stomach acid.
And in-between the stomach and esophagus is the lower esophageal sphincter muscle, which is meant to close tightly during digestion and not let stomach acid or contents back up. Sometimes that process can go awry for a variety of reasons, often due to poor eating habits. And it’s important to note with very few exceptions, the root cause of acid reflux is NOT actually too much stomach acid. So let’s look at the root causes and natural ways to get acid reflux relief without using medications.
Acid Reflux Myth Busters
Let’s start by busting some myths about acid reflux. As mentioned above, the root cause of acid reflux is rarely ever too much stomach acid. In fact, it’s a condition so rare that only 3 in 1 million people truly have too much stomach acid. It turns out that as we age, we generally have a decline in stomach acid. However, this is not necessarily due to a natural decrease in HCL, most commonly to a simmering H. Pylori infection, a bacterial overgrowth. And H. Pylori affects over half of the people over age 50, and 80% of people over age 85. An H. pylori overgrowth causes a decrease in HCL, resulting in nutrient deficiencies and a hyperactive immune system. H. pylori bacteria actually secrete an enzyme that diminishes HCl production, because they prefer to live in a lower pH environment.
So it’s highly unlikely you have too much stomach acid, even if you’ve been told you do. More accurately, acid reflux is caused by stomach acid in the wrong place. Namely HCL in the esophagus when it should be staying in the stomach. (And if you’re over 50, you might want to get checked out for H. pylori overgrowth.)
So if Acid Reflux isn’t caused by too much stomach acid, what causes it?
Great question! I’m glad you asked… From a functional medicine perspective, most of the time acid reflux is caused by a combination of three things that affect the LES and prevent it from closing tightly. The three main causes are: food sensitivities + magnesium deficiency + poor eating hygiene. And the great news is that all of those things are fixable with simple diet and lifestyle modifications!
So because acid reflux is rarely ever caused by too much stomach acid, the first thing you can do to help your body with acid reflux relief is to ditch the TUMS, Rolaids, Maalox, or other antacids that are further depleting your already low stomach acid and exacerbating your acid reflux. And if you’re on PPI medications (proton pump inhibitors), they aren’t helping you get to the root of the acid reflux problem either as you’ll learn below. So how can you get acid reflux relief, or prevent it in the first place is you don’t have it?
3 Common Causes of Acid Reflux
Let’s tackle three common causes of GERD or acid reflux so you can turn them into acid reflux relief.
1. Food Sensitivities
Due to an increase in leaky gut or enhanced intestinal permeability in the western world, food sensitivities are also on the rise. Eating foods that you may be sensitive to can cause gastric distress both upstream and downstream from the stomach. While not everyone has food sensitivities, one study showed that 91% of people with acid reflux had at least five different food sensitivities. If you’re one of those who do, food sensitivities can definitely exacerbate acid reflux.(3)
Food sensitivity is a large topic that deserves a post of its own. But if you suspect some foods are causing you gastric distress you’re probably right. Trust your “gut feeling”, your gut is communicating directly with your brain via the vagus nerve. Try tracking your foods, moods and physical symptoms using a journal like my Food, Mood, & Gratitude Journal, or schedule your complimentary Kickstart Your Health Strategy Session. Resolving food sensitivities is one of my areas of expertise and I’d love to help you.
2. Magnesium Deficiency
Magnesium is a master electrolyte and one of the most important minerals in promoting good health. It plays a role in regulating potassium and is also involved in almost every chemical reaction in our bodies, including our digestion as well as cardiovascular functions like preventing A-Fib and hypertension.(4) And it’s a good bet if you’re taking antacids or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and H2 blockers like Zantac or Prilosec, you’re deficient in magnesium.
Magnesium Deficiency is a huge topic that warrants it’s own post as well, so I won’t go into great detail here. But it’s important to know that PPIs, and other acid-blocking medications decrease overall stomach acid and perpetuate poor magnesium absorption.(5) And it’s estimated that at least 50% of Americans are magnesium deficient. Not only does magnesium deficiency interfere with digestion issues, but it also leads to other health issues down the road.
It’s a vicious cycle, low stomach acid causes magnesium deficiency ⇒ Magnesium deficiency exacerbates acid reflux ⇒ so people take PPIs or antacids for their acid reflux, which lowers stomach acid further ⇒ which decreases magnesium further ⇒ which increases acid reflux. And on and on it goes…
If you’ve been on PPIs or have been dealing with chronic acid reflux for a while, it would be a good idea to ask your health care provider to check your magnesium levels. For the most accurate results, ensure they test for Red Blood Count (RBC) Magnesium (not serum magnesium). An RBC Magnesium test shows magnesium deficiency over time.
“Stress contributes to reflux. Clearly, food is supposed to go down, not up, when you eat. That’s why there are two main valves, or sphincters, that control food going in and out of your stomach — the one at the top (or the lower esophageal sphincter) and one at the bottom (the pyloric valve). When you’re stressed, the valve on the top relaxes and the valve on the bottom tightens up. This may result in food traveling back up your esophagus. Practice active relaxation and you mitigate this problem.”(6) — Dr. Mark Hyman
3. Poor Eating Habits
Last but definitely not least is eating hygiene, or poor eating and mealtime habits. Having poor eating habits is the biggest component of the three causes of acid reflux.(7) Luckily, it’s also the one you can most easily change, immediately. Here are five things you can do to create acid reflux relief today.
5 Ways to Improve Your Eating Habits
- Mindful Eating
Sit down, breathe, relax, and savor. Stress is closely linked to acid reflux. If you quickly wolf down your food, your very full stomach won’t easily be able to mix the HCL and enzymes with your food. This will hinder the digestion process of getting nutrients out of your food and into your body. And all on its own, this one dynamic creates indigestion.
Did you know your body needs to be in parasympathetic nervous system mode (rest and digest) to be able to digest? As Dr. Mark Hyman pointed out, stress can wreak havoc on the sphincters at the top and bottom of our stomach. If you’re eating on the run, in your car, or in a meeting with your boss, your body is in sympathetic nervous system mode (fight-flight-freeze), and it won’t digest well. Your food will sit in your stomach too long and start to ferment causing gas and bloating.
Your best bet is to make time to sit down to eat. Take a few deep breaths as you conjure up some gratitude for the people who grew your food, delivered your food, or cooked your food. Then eat slowly and mindfully, thoroughly chewing and savoring each bite.
- Chew, Chew, Chew
Speaking of chewing, how many times do you chew your food before swallowing? If it’s not 30-50 times, you’re likely not chewing enough. You might know that chewing is the first step in the digestive process and that mastication or grinding of your teeth on your food is important to help break up food particles.
But did you know, equally importantly, the amylase enzyme found in your saliva is a critical enzyme needed to break down starches into nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, so your body can absorb and assimilate them? And amylase needs sufficient contact with the food in your mouth to do its job. So the more you chew, the more amylase enzyme is created. And not only does amylase make your food taste sweeter, but the longer you chew, the sweeter it tastes!
Your best bet is to aim to chew each bite 30 – 50 times, so your food is almost liquid before you swallow it. Your digestion system will thank you. And your food just might taste a lot better too! And if you’re chewing your food until it’s almost liquid, you won’t need to wash it down with water. Plus, isn’t the best part of eating tasting the food? So why not savor each bite? Cuz once it’s left your mouth, you no longer taste it. Food for thought…
- Drink Minimally With Meals
Speaking of liquid, one thing humans are horrible about is washing our food down with liquid, right? Take a bite, chew once or twice, gulp it down with water or soda. No bueno! Your digestive system works best when you drink most of your water between meals, not with your meals. Of course, you can have a glass of water or wine with your meal to cleanse your palette.
But let’s think about when you eat at a restaurant and drink a big glass of ice water while you’re waiting for your meal. Guess what happens? The water dilutes your HCL and the ice slows the digestion process. Not what we want to happen just before digesting a meal, right?
Another thing to be aware of is that carbonation in mineral water, sodas, beers, or anything “fizzy” neutralizes stomach acid. Considering what we just learned above, we really don’t want to neutralize our stomach acid. And according to health.com, “Soda and other carbonated beverages are some of the main causes of acid reflux. The bubbles of carbonation expand inside the stomach, and the increased pressure [on the LES] contributes to reflux.”(8)
Our stomach acid is strong for a reason: to help break down our food and separate out the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids from proteins. So we definitely don’t want to be neutralizing or diluting our HCL.
Your best bet is to drink your water between meals, not right before or during a meal. It’s ok to have a few small sips of water with your meal, but not an entire glass of water.
- Portion Size vs. Stomach Size
Make a fist and look at it. You may have heard that your stomach is the size of your fist. Seems pretty small, huh? While it is intended to expand a bit during digestion, it’s not meant to double or triple in size. Portion sizes in the US, in particular, have gotten way out of control in the last few decades. It’s part of the reason for the obesity epidemic, Super-Sized everything!
Think of making a smoothie or milkshake. You put all the ingredients into your blender or Vitamix. Do you fill it all the way to the top before you turn it on? Probably not, you leave some room at the top, right? Cuz what happens when you turn it on? It’s going to expand!
Well, that’s exactly what happens in your stomach too. It needs room to expand when it digests. If it’s too full to digest, it has no option but to “spillover” and stomach acid is forced back up your LES, causing you to belch and burp and causing acid reflux. Over time, if this pattern continues meal after meal, day after day, it can eventually wear out the LES muscle, that’s supposed to keep acid and digested food IN your stomach.
Your best bet is to make a quick fist before you fill your plate as a reminder. Then stop eating when you’re 75-80% full, and you’ll be taking a big step in the right direction. If you’ve reached that point where you’re stuffed and can’t eat another bite, you’ve eaten too much and may suffer acid reflux.
And if you’re chewing each bite thoroughly it will take more time to eat your meal. This, in turn, allows your stomach to signal your brain when it’s full, generally after about 20 minutes of eating. And this helps to not overeat as well.
- Evening Eating
Two more things you can do to help with acid reflux relief at the end of each day. Your stomach needs about three hours to fully digest after each meal. This means if you eat a late-night dinner and then head to bed, you’re more likely to have stomach acid run back “uphill” into your esophagus when you lay down.
Your best bet is to plan your day so you can be completely finished eating at least three hours before you lay down to sleep.
And speaking of laying down to sleep, it will also help your acid reflux symptoms to sleep on your left side. When you lay on your left side, your stomach is physically below your esophagus making it harder for stomach acid to run “uphill”. When you sleep on your right side, your stomach is above your esophagus, making it much easier for stomach acid to drain into your esophagus.
Some Foods Can Exacerbate Acid Reflux
There are a few foods that can exacerbate acid reflux. Some of these foods can cause the LES to relax, allowing more stomach acid to back up into the esophagus. Other foods take longer to digest, causing more gas and bloating, while others can exacerbate acid reflux in some people.(9)
- Fried foods and fatty foods – slow to digest
- Chocolate – LES relaxant
- Mint and Peppermint – LES relaxant
- Caffeine – can exacerbate acid reflux
- Tomatoes – can exacerbate acid reflux
- Garlic and Onions – can exacerbate acid reflux
- Citrus Fruits – can exacerbate acid reflux
Another Reason to Take Acid Reflux Seriously
Here is one important thing to note about acid reflux. While it can be really uncomfortable, having an episode every now and then generally won’t hurt you. However, chronic acid reflux over time can do serious damage to your esophagus. Barrett’s Esophagus is a condition that can arise from chronic acid reflux, where the cells in the esophagus become damaged from chronically being bathed in stomach acid. This can increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer.(10)
Because of this, it’s very important to get a handle on the root cause of your acid reflux and eliminate it. Now that you know how it’s caused and how to help prevent it, you’re well on your way to acid reflux relief. But if you’d like more support with your acid reflux issues, I’d love to help, schedule a call today.
Please leave a comment to let us know which of these remedies you found most helpful, or if you have other DIY ways to treat acid reflux.