Heartburn is something most adults experience during their lifetime. You know it as that uncomfortable burning sensation right behind the breastbone that can sometimes creep up the throat.
Your stomach is designed to be a highly acidic environment and sometimes that ring of muscle that allows food into your stomach (the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES) relaxes when it shouldn’t. When this happens, acid and partially digested food from your stomach goes back up your esophagus (which is not designed to be acidic) burning the tissue.
Symptom suppression with over-the-counter and prescription medications is the standard treatment strategy for most diseases in conventional medicine today and heartburn medications are no different. In fact, acid blockers and suppressors are a cash cow for pharmaceutical companies that bring in several billions of dollars of revenue every year.
But with the possible exception of some antibiotics, very few drugs being marketed and offered today can actually cure anything.
And heartburn is no different.
If you ask most people what causes heartburn, the answer will likely be “too much stomach acid.” If that’s what you would have said then hold onto your hat, because this post is going to blow your hair back.
Here’s what really causes heartburn: Not having enough stomach acid.
THE ROLE OF STOMACH ACID
Our stomachs are designed to be a HIGHLY acidic environment, so when we neutralize our stomach’s natural acidity for more than a few brief intervals, there’s bound to be consequences:
- We don’t break down food as well
Acid plays a big role in the digestion and absorption of many vital nutrients.
Nutrients like amino acids (which make our neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine), minerals (including iron, zinc and calcium) and vitamins (like B12) all depend on adequate stomach acid for their digestion AND our absorption.
Having the proper pH in our stomach is a trigger for the rest of our digestive process. Our pancreas and stomach rely on the stomach to have a proper pH and uses it as a signal to know when it’s their turn to step in and release other enzymes to help continue breaking food down. If our pH is too high and not acidic enough, then digestion is slowed down. When this happens, protein in your stomach can start to putrefy, fat can begin to go rancid, and carbs ferment. When this happens your stomach distends and bloat. When we lack the stomach acid, it compromises the whole digestive system.
How do we expect to be healthy and live a life full of energy and vitality when our body isn’t getting the proper nutrients it needs?
Things like our weight management, thyroid function, metabolic health, and blood pressure ALL depend on proper digestion.
Proper digestion depends on having adequate stomach acid.
- Stomach acid prevents bacterial, yeast and fungal overgrowth
Every day millions of bacteria, parasites, viruses and yeast and fungi take a free ride on our food, water and the air around us. Most of these cannot survive very long in highly acidic environments.
As this acid barrier in the stomach begins to break down (which happens with acid blockers, H.pylori infections or other gut infections), the stomach becomes vulnerable to these guys and allows them to thrive and take over the gut.
When these bad guys aren’t “checked” they do what they do best – multiply. When they multiply they crowd out all the good guys who are there to work for us by building up our immune system, keeping our digestion moving, and breaking down food.
Simply put, the bad guys are there to party, but in a chaotic dangerous way that always results in the cops being called or worse – someone getting hurt (in this case the cops are additional symptoms and someone getting hurt is well, You). In contrast, the good guys like to party in the, “Let’s all have a good time” kind of way.
This chaos the bad guys bring in reach far and wide such as:
- A mix of both constipation and diarrhea
- Weight gain or stubborn weight loss
- IBD flare ups
- Brain fog
- Achy joints
We all know someone who goes to the doctor complaining of chronic heartburn and is told to just take acid-blocking medication.
The problem with this approach is you’ve just become a sitting duck for even more digestive dysfunction and have started walking the road of symptom and disease collection.
SO WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT
- First and foremost, before you go on any acid blocker find out if your stomach really is making too much stomach acid. Any good doctor will do their due diligence and rule this out before offering dangerous (yes, they are dangerous long term) medications.
It’s no surprise that drugs for acid reflux and GERD are cash cows for pharmaceutical companies and they’ve convinced us we’re all walking around with too much stomach acid.
But the science does NOT support this. Chances are very high, the real culprit is for your heartburn is an UNDERPRODUCTION of stomach acid.
- Rule out an H.pylori infection. This is a very common bactrium that is present in over half the population. For some, it causes no issues. But for others, the colonization of H.pylori can result in very harmful effects such as:
- Loss of appetite
- Frequent burping
- An ache or burning pain in your abdomen
- Abdominal pain that’s worse when your stomach is empty
We can test for H.pylori with an at-home GI Map stool test. Over half my clients come back positive for H.pylori and that number is MUCH higher when they’ve come to me with symptoms of stalled weight loss, gas, bloating, and constipation.
If you test positive for H.pylori we can address it through a customized herbal protocol.
If you test negative for H.pylori, we can supplement with Hydrochloric acid and Pepcid if appropriate (and slowly!), while we work on the root cause of why your stomach acid is low in the first place.
Some of the root causes of low stomach acid include:
- Poor diet
- Food sensitivities
- Mineral deficiencies (sodium and zinc)
- Poor eating hygiene
- Chronic use of NSAID’s
- Contaminated water (fluoride and chloride can inhibit enzymes we need to make stomach acid)
No matter what herbal or drug treatments are implemented, they should be done in addition to diet and lifestyle changes, not instead of them.
Low stomach acid levels are connected with your digestion, the health of your gut, and your abdominal pressure.
How can we expect our cells and our whole bodies to live long and well if they’re chronically malnourished.
If you’re sick of living with heartburn, bloating, or constipation let’s get to the bottom of it.
You will not feel good until you start addressing the gut.