Do you experience frequent heartburn/reflux? Indigestion? Maybe you take over the counter antacid relief, or your doctor prescribed you Nexium (the purple pill) or Prilosec. After all, it makes sense: If you have stomach acid burning your esophagus, you need an antacid to neutralize it for pain relief, right?
Actually, this is not always the case. The majority of reflux patients (> 90 percent) actually have LOW stomach acid, not high stomach acid (called hyperchlorhydria), which is actually not common (source). Conventional medicine has a knack for treating the symptoms without uncovering the underlying cause of what causes the reflux.
In the case of chronic heartburn, it’s insufficient or alkaline stomach acid, not too much stomach acid, that’s the cause.
Your stomach acid should be around a PH of 2, incredibly acidic, so that it can break down food into a liquid (chyme) that travels to the small intestine, where nutrients are absorbed, and then the large intestine, where waste travels onward and outward to be excreted. If your stomach acid is at a higher PH, more alkaline, food cannot be properly broken down, and any pathogens, bacteria, or anything else that might be possibly contaminating your food won’t be killed. When food is not properly broken down, it ferments/putrefies in the intestinal tract, giving off gases and causing a burning sensation that then travels up the esophageal tract. This causes reflux. It also travels out the other end, causing gas and bloating. A lazy esophageal sphincter that fails to close properly also allows gas and acid to travel backwards and up the esophagus.
Gastritis, inflammation of the stomach lining, also causes heartburn.
If you have chronic heartburn, GERD, or ulcers, chances are very good that you have h pylori, a nasty bacteria that causes ulcers, gastritis, and systemic inflammation that can lead to cancer and heart disease. The 2005 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to 2 scientists for “the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.”
Antacids make heartburn worse because they neutralize acids and therefore raise stomach acid pH further, making it easier for h pylori to thrive and making it harder for you to digest food. That’s why reflux worsens over time. No purple pill will kill h pylori – it will only exacerbate it over time.
Low stomach acid is a common problem and worsens with age. If you see undigested food in your poop, or if you belch or fart a lot, you likely have low stomach acid and are not absorbing necessary nutrients from your food. Also, low stomach acid makes it easier to contract h pylori and other bugs in the first place. H pylori can also be transmitted through undercooked chicken, meat, or even by kissing.
Of course, reflux can also result from consuming foods to which you’re allergic, and there are many common heartburn triggers such as spicy foods and citrus. But if you are experiencing it regularly, time to figure out the cause. H Pylori and other bugs can be tested for via stool test. Once the h pylori is gone, your stomach and gut can heal – both will be inflamed as a result of the infection. You can take digestive enzymes to help digestion and to increase stomach acid. Follow up the program with a good course of probiotics to recolonize the gut. I cover in depth how to get rid of h pylori here. Check out my 4 step plan to heal your gut here.
Don’t live your life covering up symptoms of a very uncomfortable problem. Why take a pill for the rest of your life when you can get rid of the problem itself?
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.