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The American Gastroenterological Association estimates that about 60 million Americans have a case of heartburn each month. Heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. It's a form of acid indigestion in which acid leaves the stomach and enters the esophagus causing burning and pain.
When you eat, food passes down the esophagus and into the stomach. The stomach secretes hydrochloric acid and pepsin to break down proteins and begin the process of digestion. The stomach has a mucous lining to help protect it against this acid. The esophagus does not. Normally a muscular valve at the top of the stomach holds the stomach's acid and contents in the stomach. This valve opens to permit belching, then closes again.
Heartburn occurs when the valve at the top of the stomach allows acid to seep back into the esophagus. This acid burns and inflames the esophageal lining, which does not have the same mucous protection as the stomach. This creates the "burning" sensation in the center of the chest called heartburn. The more accurate term is acid reflux.
Occasional heartburn or acid reflux is not a serious condition. If it happens frequently and persistently, then the repeated burning and inflammation of the esophagus may result in serious damage. This serious condition is called gastro esophageal reflux disease or GERD. GERD is common, affecting an estimated 5-7% of the American population. GERD is just a fancy way to say chronic heartburn.
The problem with chronic heartburn or GERD is that it may cause an erosion of the esophagus due to the continual acid damage. Scar tissue can form which will narrow the passageway. It increases the risk of esophageal cancer. It is associated with the respiratory system, such as coughing and asthma, but the links between them are unclear.
Acid burning isn't limited to the esophagus. The stomach lining may wear down and result in acid burning of the stomach itself, causing ulcers. Acid leaving the stomach must be neutralized by secretions from the gallbladder and pancreas. If this does not happen, the duodenum, the first turn of the small intestine, may become irritated and ulcerated. Obviously, the acid of the stomach must be properly controlled.
Moving Beyond Antacids by Addressing the Causes
When the average American has acid reflux or acid indigestion, they reach for some type of antacid. An antacid is an alkaline substance that simply neutralizes acid. Different antacids use different alkalizing agents to achieve this purpose. Alka-Seltzer and Bromo-Seltzer contain sodium bicarbonate. Tums, Alka-2, and Titralac contain calcium carbonate. Aluminum based and magnesium based antacids are available.
Acid-blocking drugs on the market like Pepcid AC, Tagamet HB, Axid XR and Zantac 75 work by inhibiting the production of hydrochloric acid. They may have potentially serious side effects such as confusion, chest tightness, bleeding, sore throat, fever, irregular heartbeat, weakness and unusual fatigue.
The latest "weapon" of modern pharmaceutical medicine against stomach acidity is the proton pump inhibitor. Drugs of this class are currently available by prescription only. The ads for the little purple pills seen on TV are for this type of medication. Proton pump inhibitors block the hydrochloric acid in the stomach shutting down stomach acid production.
Problems with Antacids and Acid Blockers
While neutralizing or inhibiting the production of stomach acid may provide temporary symptomatic relief, it doesn't solve the real problems causing acid reflux or acid indigestion. These medications are masking symptoms not correcting underlying problems is evidenced by the terminology and mandatory disclaimers associated with the sale of these products, "serious gastrointestinal problems still exist." The key is in the word still, demonstrating that the pharmaceutical companies know that these symptoms signal the presence of gastrointestinal problems which antacids and acid blockers don't fix.
We need stomach acid to break down protein and to absorb minerals like calcium, iron, zinc, copper, etc. Neutralizing or inhibiting the stomach acid continually upsets protein metabolism and mineral balances in the body. It upsets the pH balance of the body and over time may make the problem of indigestion even worse.
The Role of Stomach Acid
The food we eat is composed of cells which contain protein structures. Hydrochloric acid (HCI) is an extremely acidic substance which is absorbed into the cell structures, causing them to burst and release their contents into the stomach fluids. This allows the enzyme pepsin to begin to break down these proteins into simpler fragments.
Hydrochloric acid serves two critical functions. First, it disinfects the food by killing harmful microbes. Secondly, it helps to ionize metallic minerals so they can be chelated and transported across the intestinal membrane.
As the hydrochloric acid is absorbed into the food, the pH of the stomach increases. This signals the valve at the bottom of the stomach to open, allowing the contents to pass into the small intestines, where the pancreatic and bile secretions further alkalize the solution.
What Causes Excess Acid?
Poor digestion, irritating foods and mechanical pressure all contribute to indigestion and acid reflux.
The more protein foods are cooked, the more the proteins are denatured. Denatured proteins become "leathery" making it more difficult for digestive juices to penetrate the tissues and break down the food particles. Greasy fried foods create the same problem because water and oil do not mix. The grease coats the food particles, preventing penetration by the hydrochloric acid.
When food is not thoroughly chewed, it is harder for digestive juices to penetrate the food; food needs to be chewed thoroughly to help digestive secretions blend with food particles. Overeating may cause acid indigestion, as the stomach becomes overburdened with more food than it can handle. Food winds up not being digested properly, which may cause the body to signal for more production of acid. Certain foods may trigger acid indigestion because they trigger a type of allergic response. Common foods that may cause excess acid production in some people include onions, peppermint, chocolate, coffee, citrus fruits, tomatoes, garlic and spicy foods.
While these may cause acid indigestion, other factors may cause the acid to reflux into the esophagus. These are generally due to mechanical pressures. Anything which puts pressure on the value at the top of the stomach will allow acid to enter the esophagus, even if acid production isn't excessive.
Anything that pushes the stomach upward may put pressure on this valve including intestinal gas and bloating, excess body weight, tight fitting clothes, pregnancy and lying down after eating. Stress tenses the solar plexus area and draws the stomach upward.
When a portion of the upper stomach passes through the opening in the diaphragm that the esophagus passes through known as a hiatal hernia. A hiatal hernia creates chronic digestive problems and eventually chronic digestive weakness. Pressure on the stomach from below may cause a hiatal hernia, but it may be created by repeated stress and "swallowing" of emotions.
A hiatal hernia causes a "kink" in the valve at the top of the stomach, creating chronic heartburn or GERD. It may put pressure on the heart, weaken the thyroid and contribute to chronic gas and bloating in the intestines. This mechanical problem must be corrected before any permanent relief can be found.
Using Green Herbs Instead of Purple Pills
Lifestyle changes and herbal supplements will usually correct acid reflux and acid indigestion. For starters, eating more slowly and eating smaller and frequent meals will often alleviate the problem. Next, pay attention to foods that trigger acid indigestion. These foods are either not being digested well or are causing a type of allergic reaction; they should be avoided. Especially avoid soda pop, coffee and greasy-fried foods.
Acid reflux usually begins with poor digestion brought on by lack of enzymes, food allergies or processed foods that are difficult for the body to digest. Taking enzymes to help foods break down better is the first step. Enzymes will help reduce allergic reactions. Proactazyme contains vegetable derived enzymes that may help break down all three major categories of nutrients; fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
Acid reflux can be a sign that the body isn't producing enough hydrochloric acid to properly digest proteins. The undigested food ferments, producing waste acids and fermentation. The acid indigestion is usually accompanied by poor digestion of proteins, intestinal gas and bloating and a heavy feeling in the stomach after eating. The acid indigestion usually occurs about an hour after eating and the tongue is pale, often with a heavy coating. In this case PDA or Food Enzymes may be helpful to supplement hydrochloric acid production.
For immediate relief from this type of acid indigestion may be relieved by removing a small amount of Goldenseal powder from the capsule, place it on the tongue and suck on it. It is very bitter but it may stop the burning very quickly.
When the tongue is heavily coated, there is often an accumulation of mucus and undigested proteins in the intestinal tract. Small Intestinal Detox may help to break this material down by delivering the protein digesting enzyme pepsin to the small intestines.
When there is too much acid production in the stomach, the symptoms will be different from those described above. Protein digestion is good and food digests rapidly. The tongue is red and the person is usually younger. This condition is usually due to overeating and stress. It may be due to eating too many grains and refined carbohydrates and not enough protein and vegetables.
Catnip has been called "nature's Alka-Seltzer" and may be good for this type of acid indigestion. Chamomile may be helpful. Both are more effective for this problem when taken as a tea. Simply empty the contents of capsules into a cup, pour boiling water over the herbs, steep and strain.
If bloating and gas are problems, they may be contributing to the acid reflux. Intestinal gas and bloating put pressure on the stomach, pressing it upwards against the diaphragm. Anti-Gas Formula with Lobelia or the Chinese Anti-Gas Formula may be helpful. Both improve digestive function and reduce gas and bloating, which may ease belching and acid reflux.
To heal damage to the esophagus and digestive tract due to excess acid, soothing mucilaginous remedies are needed. One of the best is Whole Leaf Aloe Vera Juice. By sipping small amounts of aloe diluted in water, the burning or inflammation in the esophagus due to the acid reflux can be cooled and soothed. Aloe will help to normalize the pH of the body, reducing over acidity in general.
Intestinal Soothe and Build helps tissues in the digestive tract to repair themselves and may be helpful for healing a hiatal hernia.
Licorice root is soothing for inflammation in the digestive tract. It may help ulcers to heal and will soothe acid burning in the throat when taken as a tea or Licorice extract. Or the powders are placed in the mouth and sucked on to slowly coat the throat. Gastro Health may help rid the body of the H. pylori bacteria, which contributes to ulcers. It may help soothe a stomach irritated by acid burning.
These remedies, along with appropriate lifestyle changes, can eliminate acid reflux and the need for antacids.
Whole Leaf Aloe Vera
Whole Leaf Aloe Vera juice is an excellent product for easing acid indigestion and helping the gastrointestinal tract heal from damage due to acid reflux and excess stomach acid.
Some of the benefits of aloe are: