Most of us have experienced acid reflux after a big meal or coffee or alcohol. It’s when stomach acid flows into the esophagus. However, when this happens frequently, it is diagnosed as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Symptoms can include heartburn, feeling like you have a lump in your throat, regurgitation of food or liquid, trouble swallowing and coughing. It can lead to less sleep and a worsening of asthma symptoms. GERD and asthma seem to be related but it's not known how yet.
GERD should not be ignored. Our stomach acid can cause scar tissue to form which leads to a narrowing of the esophagus which can lead to problems swallowing. It can also cause ulcers and lead to cancer.
If you have GERD, you probably know your triggers. The most common are coffee, alcohol, spicy foods, greasy food, tomatoes, chocolate, overeating and smoking. To reduce symptoms, don’t eat in the evening, eat smaller amounts, lose weight (if you’re overweight), stop smoking, and raise the head of your bed.
And you’ve probably been prescribed antacids, histamine blockers or a proton pump inhibitor (PPI). Antacids (Rolaids, Tums, etc.) can help your symptoms quickly but won’t heal any damage. Overuse can lead to diarrhea and kidney problems. Histamine blockers (Tagamet HB, Pepcid AC, Axid AR, etc.) provide longer relief and may decrease acid production for up to 12 hours.
A PPI (esomeprazole, lansoprazole, omeprazole, pantoprazole, rabeprazole, dexlansoprazole, etc.) blocks stomach acid and allows time for damage to heal. Because doctors give these prescriptions out like candy, it is the most prescribed medication. These can cause diarrhea, nausea, headaches, and low levels of magnesium and vitamin B12. Additionally, they are associated with a decrease in gut bacteria. When you don’t have a balance of good bacteria in your gut this can lead to acid reflux or GERD. Recent studies also suggest long term use can lead to osteoporosis related fractures, infection leading to colitis, malabsorption of calcium and iron, dementia, pneumonia, kidney disease and stroke, atrophic gastritis (inflammation and thinning of the stomach lining), hypergastrinemia (high or low levels of stomach acid), gastric polyps and gastric cancer. You should only take these for a limited time (usually three months maximum).
We tend to assume that any acid reflux symptom is due to high stomach acid levels. However, low levels of stomach acid (hypochlorhydria) have very similar symptoms to those of too much stomach acid. Low stomach acid is often overlooked and not well understood by doctors and even gastroenterologists. And we tend to produce less stomach acid as we age. If you don’t have enough stomach acid, you can’t digest properly which means you can’t absorb the nutrients. This can lead to small intestine bacteria overgrowth (SIBO). It also increases your risk of Heliobacter pylori overgrowth, associated with gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.
This poor digestion can create gas bubbles that rise into your esophagus causing similar symptoms. bWhat frequently happens is you’re then prescribed medication to lower your already low stomach acid, which instead just makes your condition worse. Or you’ve been on PPIs too long and now you’re not producing enough stomach acid (this happened to me). Which is why doing the baking soda test before you visit your doctor is a good idea. One of the symptoms I had with low stomach acid was feeling like I wanted to eat all the time.
The baking soda test is an at home do-it-yourself test you can do to check your stomach acid levels. They are not as accurate as stomach acid tests but are easy and free and give you a place to start. And it doesn’t taste that bad. To conduct the test, mix ¼ tsp of baking soda in ½ cup water. Drink this first thing in the morning on an empty stomach and start a timer to see how long it takes you to burp. The baking soda combines with your stomach acid and creates carbon dioxide. If it takes longer than 3-5 minutes, it’s likely you have low acid. Less than 30 seconds usually indicates high stomach acid.
You can also test for and treat low stomach acid by taking a hydrochloric acid (HCL) supplement but consult a healthcare provider first. There are two methods of taking these supplements; one with every meal OR slowly increasing the daily dose until your stomach starts making enough acid again. Knowing when to stop increasing the dosage is tricky business, so get some help or advice. HCL supplements are not for everyone and there may be underlying causes to your low stomach acid which you should have checked out (prescriptions, health condition or bacterial infection).
To help reduce symptoms, essential oils can be inhaled, put in the bath, or massaged (clockwise over abdomen), especially clary sage, ginger, and marjoram. Angelica, anise seed, cardamom, cinnamon leaf, clove, and valerian essentials can also help. To use in massage or the bath, be sure to dilute the essential oils in a carrier oil, liquid soap, or lotion first.
Carob may reduce acid reflux and it’s an excellent source of vitamins A, B2, B3 and B6, copper, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and manganese. It’s also high in fibre and protein. And it can replace chocolate if it’s one of your acid reflux triggers! One study found that infants fed a formula with carob bean gum showed significant decreases in all symptoms.
Finally, try a detox. This is what made my GERD symptoms disappear (I followed the detox in the Clean Gut book by Alejandro Junger). A good gut detox removes many acid forming foods from the diet, cleanses the digestive system, and reduces inflammation in the gut, which in turn leads to a reduction or an elimination of many health problems.
Here’s a fun fact for you. Lemons are known to be acidic as well as alkaline. Lemons are acidic (pH of 2) before they are eaten. Once the body processes them, they have an alkalizing effect. Isn’t the body amazing?!