If you’ve ever noticed a burning or tightening sensation in your chest after eating, you may have been experiencing the symptoms of acid reflux. Over 60 million Americans experience the discomfort associated with acid reflux at least once per month. More than 15 million are reportedly suffering with symptoms on a daily basis[i].
So what causes acid reflux and how can it be treated? Let’s take an in depth look at this condition and the various ways it can be treated.
What is acid reflux?
The esophageal sphincter connects your esophagus with your stomach. If this muscle doesn’t function effectively your stomach acids can move backwards and cause acid reflux. The result could be a burning sensation or tightness in your chest, known as heartburn. Other potential symptoms of acid reflux can include a bitter taste at the back of your throat, a sour taste in your mouth and a cough or sore throat[ii].
Acid reflux can range in frequency and severity. When acid reflux occurs more than twice per week or causes inflammation of the esophagus it may be diagnosed as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). This is the chronic form of acid reflux which can lead to additional problems such as damage to your teeth as a result of ongoing, excess acid moving upwards and into the mouth.
How to test for acid reflux
The symptoms mentioned above may serve as initial indicators that you are experiencing acid reflux. From here you can consider your treatments options. Frequent and/or severe symptoms that don’t respond well to treatments should be looked at more closely. Tests such as esophageal manometry, pH monitoring, a barium swallow, and an endoscopy or biopsy can be used to confirm a diagnosis and check for additional problems[iii].
The relationship between acid reflux and weight gain
There is evidence of a relationship between acid reflux and weight gain. Although healthy weight individuals can experience the symptoms of acid reflux, you may be more likely to have it the more weight you carry. Obesity, especially abdominal obesity can have an effect on symptoms of and complications from GERD[iv]. Weight loss can be effective for providing relief from GERD symptoms and keeping it under control. It can even lead to complete resolution of GERD symptoms in overweight and obese subjects[v].
What causes acid reflux?
As you now know, acid reflux is caused by excess acid in your esophagus. This doesn’t necessarily mean high acid in the stomach though which we’ll get to later on in this article. There are a number of potential triggers that may cause acid reflux symptoms [vi] including:
- A hiatal hernia, which makes it easier for acid to move into your esophagus
- Pregnancy, due to the combined impact of hormone changes and increasing pressure from a growing fetus
- Smoking, which impairs muscle function and reflexes, increases acid secretion and reduces salivation
- Being overweight or obese, as previously explained
- Certain foods and beverages such as alcohol, fried and fatty foods, chocolate, spicy food, mint, citrus fruits and tomatoes, coffee or tea, garlic, onions and carbonated drinks
- Additional foods that may be causing gut inflammation and contributing to reflux symptoms include gluten, dairy or even grain containing foods.
- Eating only 1-2 large volume meals per day, and eating a very large evening meal[vii]
- Lastly, low stomach acid can also contribute to reflux (explained more below).
You may also find that symptoms are worsened if you bend over or lie down soon after eating a large meal. Certain medications also have the potential to exacerbate symptoms.
Does sugar cause acid reflux?
Anything that triggers inflammation in the gut, can cause acid reflux (including sugar). Some of the common reflux trigger foods and drinks mentioned above can contain high levels of sugar (e.g. carbonated drinks). For some individuals, it may not be the sugar itself but other components or digestibility of highly processed and sugar loaded foods.
Frequent consumption of foods that are high in sugar can contribute towards obesity as well. Remember that being overweight can increase the likelihood of getting acid reflux. Because weight loss can provide relief from acid reflux symptoms, taking steps to achieve a healthy weight range should form part of your plan to live a life free from acid reflux.
Can lack of sleep cause acid reflux?
There is a strong relationship between GERD and lack of sleep, but the exact nature of that relationship is still being discovered. Sleep disorders may induce gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, and GI disorders may disrupt sleep[viii]. People with GERD may experience poorer sleep quality[ix]. Poor sleep quality can also increase the amount of acid in the stomach, and worsen the symptoms of acid reflux the following day[x].
At this point you may be realizing that the cause of your acid reflux could very much be multi-factorial. The discussion so far around weight gain, sugar, sleep and trigger foods should be starting to provide insight around some of the ways you can treat acid reflux naturally. Before we take a look at a natural approach for treating acid reflux, let’s find out how it is treated conventionally.
What is the conventional approach for treating acid reflux?
Antacids are the most common form of conventional treatment for acid reflux, GERD and symptoms of heartburn. They can provide fast relief for the symptoms of acid reflux because they weaken your stomach acid as soon as they reach it. The main active ingredient in antacids is usually calcium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, aluminum hydroxide and/or magnesium hydroxide.
H2 blockers take longer to start working than antacids, but the effects tend to last longer. Brands include Pepcid and Zantac. Finally, proton pump inhibitors (PPI’S) including Nexium, Prilosec and Prevacid may be prescribed. They work by reducing the production of stomach acid and are usually offered when symptoms aren’t resolved with antacids.
What are the problems with antacids and PPI’s?
PPI’s are often given with the goal to lower stomach acid. Unfortunately, that’s the wrong approach to take and often leaves people with worsened gut health. Think about it. The goal of the medication is to suppress stomach acid and prevent the symptoms of reflux but the question that is not asked in most doctors office is, “why is the stomach acid moving upwards in the first place?” That is the root issue that needs to be addressed.
Stomach acid is not evil. It has a purpose, and a very important one at that. The stomach has high acidity to protect us. Let’s walk through the roles of stomach acid.
- Triggers the release of pepsin which is used to break down protein. Without protein breakdown, amino acids cannot be absorbed.
- Prevents undigested protein from reaching the small intestine and triggering an immune response (inflammation).
- Kills certain bacteria and prevents it from entering the small intestine and impacting our immune system.
- Stomach acid is important for micronutrient absorption like vitamin B12, folate, iron, calcium and many more.
If stomach acid is a good thing, why are acid blocking drugs so popular? Well, the simple answer is because they do provide relief but it’s a temporary Band-Aid. These medications were not meant to be used long-term. In fact, each bottle has a warning saying the pill should not be used for more than 14 days. Yet most people find themselves on a daily dose for years.
A very common underlying cause for acid reflux symptoms is low stomach acid. In this case, digestion (especially protein digestion) would be weak. Without adequate protein digestion, we can’t get the proper amino acid absorption. Without amino acids, our system as a whole is weakened. Amino acids are used for many, many things in the body including the immune system, tissue repair, brain/mood health, gut health, our metabolism, hair, skin, nails and so much more!
When stomach acid is low, the undigested food can cause gas build up in the stomach and push open the sphincter that sits between the esophagus and the stomach. If that sphincter is pushed open, stomach acid or gas can get through and create the reflux symptoms. In this case, the worst idea is to lower the stomach acid even more with PPI’s!
Studies that highlight the risks of these drugs
Use of proton pump inhibitors has been linked to an increased risk for cancer. One study demonstrated that PPI’s may increase the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma[xi]. As mentioned above, stomach acid is important for absorption of vitamin B12. A study on B12 absorption before and after Prilosec (a PPI) showed that the drug decreased B12 absorption in a dose-dependent manner[xii]. PPI’s can also reduce the uptake and absorption of other important minerals in the body including zinc[xiii] and magnesium[xiv].
How to tackle acid reflux naturally
Now it’s time for the most exciting part…how to treat your acid reflux naturally! If you want to steer clear of the potential risks associated with treating your acid reflux conventionally, let’s look at some gentler approaches that focus on adding to your health. These suggestions will help to create a balanced and healthy internal environment with the goal of fixing your acid reflux for good.
Acid reflux and exercise
Perhaps you are wondering whether exercise will improve your acid reflux symptoms, or whether it will make it worse. First of all, remember that being overweight can worsen the symptoms of your acid reflux. Exercise is one way to help keep your body weight in a healthy range, and therefore it can be helpful in your quest for eliminating your acid reflux.
But does exercise help acid reflux itself? The correct timing and type of exercise could help your acid reflux symptoms, or at least ensure they are not aggravated. However some types and timings of exercise could make your symptoms worse.
Start with gentle forms of exercise in an upright position and monitor your body’s response. If everything is fine, you can consider progressing to more intense exercise. Be cautious of vigorous exercise such as running, skipping, jumping, gymnastics and weightlifting. High impact exercise could force acid into the esophagus and worsen your symptoms. Body positions that involve bending for extended periods or going upside down may also trigger symptoms.
In terms of timing your exercise sessions, aim to work out with a relatively empty stomach. This will involve a little planning to ensure you’ve got the necessary fuel on board for a workout but that your last meal has been well digested. Exercising too soon after a meal can initiate acid reflux[xv].
Tackling acid reflux with diet and healthy food behaviors
So, what foods cause acid reflux? We’ve already mentioned some of the foods and drinks that commonly trigger acid reflux symptoms. As a reminder, these include alcohol, fried and fatty foods, chocolate, mint, spicy food, citrus fruits and tomatoes, coffee or tea, garlic, onions and carbonated drinks. It’s best to limit or avoid these foods altogether as you’re healing your gut. You may want to consider a trial removal period gluten, dairy or even grain containing foods as well. If a trial elimination is intimidating to you, let our 131 Method support team help guide, education and support you through the process!
For detailed guidance and explanation of the importance of gut health and how to improve gut health for reduced inflammation, check out the 131 Method full program.
The most obvious suggestion is to monitor your symptoms after eating certain foods. If they aggravate you, eliminate or limit accordingly. It may be a good idea to record your symptoms in a food diary so you can more easily associate your symptoms with certain foods. Everyone is different, so take note of the foods that personally work well for you, and of the ones that don’t.
What to include while trying to improve your acid reflux symptoms will vary as every individual has a different immune system and different health foundation. Here are some suggestions on what to include but recognize, you may need to tweak this list even more for yourself.
- Healthy fats including avocados, nuts and seeds
- All vegetables (be mindful of added fat, flavor or sauces)
- Non citrus fruits such as apples and bananas
- Fermented foods and drinks to promote healthy gut bacteria, including fermented vegetables (e.g. sauerkraut), tempeh, apple cider vinegar, kefir and yoghurt
- Mineral rich bone broths
Be mindful of meal timings and portion sizes, monitor your symptoms and adjust your choices accordingly. It’s also a good idea to always sit down when eating meals, and ensure meal times are relaxing. Chew your food well and eat slowly to help your body’s ability to digest your food properly.
Recipes for acid reflux sufferers
For a delicious breakfast, try these one pot steel cut apple cinnamon oats. It’s a great option if you like a bit of fruit but you need to avoid citrus, which can aggravate acid reflux symptoms. Add a little ginger if desired, to help support your digestion further.
If you’re looking for a healthy sweet treat, check out these tasty PB&J blueberry muffins. The healthy fats from the peanut butter will help to satiate you without triggering your symptoms like fried snacks could.
If you want to make a juice for acid reflux, experiment with any combination of vegetables and non-citrus fruits. The addition of ginger can further help to ease any digestive distress and will add a tasty zing to your juice.
Many herbal teas can help support a healthy digestive system and ease your acid reflux symptoms. Just be sure to avoid any type of mint teas, which can worsen symptoms in some people. Due to its anti-inflammatory properties[xvi] and ability to calm the stomach, ginger can be a good option. Chamomile has a calming and soothing effect on the digestive system[xvii] so it can also be valuable in terms of relieving the symptoms of acid reflux.
Supplements to consider for acid reflux
In addition to a healthy food and drink intake, some natural supplements can help to support a healthy digestive system and in turn improve your acid reflux systems. We encourage to use a holistic approach when it comes to treating acid reflux. Taking a supplement with a view of it being a “cure-all” is not a wise approach. They should be used in conjunction with nutrition and other lifestyle adjustments.
Some supplements you can consider as part of a holistic approach to treating acid reflux include:
- Probiotics to help balance out good and bad gut bacteria. Repopulate the good bacteria to help resolve problems of indigestion and inability to absorb nutrients properly. Remember that fermented foods are also a good source of natural probiotics. Gut health is extremely important to healing the root cause of reflux.
- A high quality magnesium supplement, which can be effective in reducing the symptoms in heartburn[xviii]. As previously mentioned, magnesium hydroxide may be one of the active ingredients in antacids. Remember that PPI’s can also block the absorption of minerals such as magnesium, so if you’ve taken them in the past, it could be even more important to top up your magnesium stores.
- Some early studies suggest that melatonin could be useful for treating GERD[xix]
- Digestive enzymes can help your body to break down food and absorb nutrients properly[xx] so they are also worth considering as part of rebuilding a healthy digestive system and tackling your acid reflux naturally.
- Additional aids like aloe vera juice, DGL or mastic gum may provide temporary relief but remember, you want to still be targeting the root cause and work to reduce gut inflammation.
If you’re taking any medication, talk to your health practitioner about any possible interaction risks with supplements and herbs.
Other suggestions for treating acid reflux naturally
- The links between sleep and GERD have been discussed and strategies around sleep should be considered as part of a natural treatment plan. As a general recommendation, ensure that you have your last meal of the evening at least 2-3 hours before going to bed in order to allow time for digestion before lying down. You can also try using blocks to lift the top end of your bed to aid digestion. Don’t use higher pillows which will only act to lift your head and could place added strain on the neck.
- If you are a smoker, start a plan to give up.
- For acid reflux in children, natural remedies should primarily be focused around dietary adjustments similar to adults. Yoghurt is often a favorite for children and it can help to calm their digestive systems and promote the growth of good gut bacteria. Check with a health practitioner regarding the safety of any supplements you are considering giving to a child. Second hand smoke should also be avoided for children with acid reflux.
- Manage your stress levels, as high stress could make your symptoms worse. Choose a relaxation practice that resonates with you, such as yoga, tai chi, music or meditation. Avoid taking on too many commitments at once and always make sure you plan in a little downtime just for yourself each day.
For a comprehensive understanding of gut health and how to optimize it naturally, check out the 131 Method!