Acid reflux, and the resulting heartburn, has been steadily on the riseover the past two decades. In fact, as many as 60 million Americanssuffer from this uncomfortable post-meal sensation on a regular basis. But you might be surprised to learn that experts still can’t agree on the cause of the disorder—or the best way to treat it.
For starters, acid reflux—also known as gastroesophageal reflux—is the expulsion of stomach contents back into the esophagus. And that’s about as fun as it sounds: The acidity of this fluid burns the esophageal lining causing a painful burning sensation in the chest. Repeated exposure to stomach acid can cause serious damage to the esophagus and increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Unfortunately, while there are over-the-counter and prescription medications to treat acid reflux, they can be expensive and come with a host of long- and short-term side effects, like increased risk of nutrient deficiencies, osteoporosis, and dependency (more on that in a bit). The good news is, there are many lifestyle changes and natural remedies that might offer relief and even target the underlying causes of acid reflux. But first, let’s get back to why you might want to consider treating acid reflux without medication.
The problem with acid reflux medications.
Due to the uncomfortable—and in some cases, unbearable—symptoms, many people turn to over-the-counter and prescription medications for quick heartburn relief. The most common types of medications used are H2 blockers and proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs), which both suppress stomach acid production really effectively. But as with any drug, there can be side effects. The short-term effects of these drugs may include constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. All uncomfortable but not particularly worrisome or serious.
Long-term use of H2 blockers and PPIs, however, can have more serious consequences. Stomach acid plays a crucial role in breaking down food for proper digestion and absorption, so continual suppression of the acid may lead to nutrient deficiencies. Additionally, PPIs may increase blood levels of the hormone gastrin, which can leach calcium from the bones. This combination can increase the risk for bone fractures and osteoporosis. The acidity of the stomach also works to kill bacteria that can cause illnesses. So, chronically low stomach acid levels can leave you at risk for infections.
Another issue with H2 blockers and PPIs is dependence. In order to try to maintain a balance, the body responds to acid-suppressing drugs by attempting to increase production of acid. This is held at bay by the continued use of the drugs, but once medication is stopped, the floodgates are opened. The body overproduces acid, making acid reflux symptoms even worse. This is called rebound acid hypersecretion. Many people incorrectly interpret this to mean they should continue using H2 blockers or PPIs. Fortunately, with lifestyle changes and natural therapies, it is oftentimes possible to quell the symptoms of acid reflux and heal the root causes without medication.
The basics of managing and preventing acid reflux naturally.
If you suffer from acid reflux, you likely know there are many modifiable lifestyle factors that can help you manage and prevent the uncomfortable symptoms. For starters, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking can greatly decrease your risk of acid reflux and improve overall health.
Meal timing and post-meal behavior can also help prevent the onset of acid reflux. The NIH recommends not eating within three hours of bedtime and remaining upright during this time period. The idea is to give the stomach enough time to properly and completely digest a meal before lying down, which minimizes the risk for acid reflux. (Not to mention, if you’ve been meaning to try intermittent fasting, which has been linked with an entire other set of health benefits, this could be a great excuse to start.) It’s important to ensure the stomach can properly and completely digest a meal in order to minimize the risk for acid reflux. Another proven method to aid in digestion is to avoid constricting the stomach, with tight clothing or bad posture. Staying mindful during mealtime and not overeating may also help you avoid heartburn and ease digestion, as stomach distention can cause the sphincter between the esophagus and the stomach to relax, allowing for the backward flow of contents. Just one more good reason to slow down and eat more mindfully, right?
Sleeping with an elevated head and chest may encourage the flow of digestion and decrease the risk for heartburn as well. Unfortunately, stacking pillows may not offer enough support, so the Cleveland Clinic suggests using wooden blocks to prop up the head of the bed. Surprisingly, body orientation during sleep may also affect the risk for acid reflux. The esophagus-stomach connection is located on the right side of the body, so sleeping on the left side of the body may keep acid away from this opening and decrease the occurrence of acid reflux.
Foods that fight acid reflux.
For anyone with acid reflux, it’s probably no shock to learn that what we eat can have a significant impact on your likelihood of suffering from heartburn. Traditionally, patients have been advised to avoid acidic foods and drinks like tomatoes, citrus fruits, and coffee. It’s believed that eating these foods may increase the acidity of the stomach and therefore the acidity of the contents that come in contact with the throat, exacerbating pain symptoms. Limiting these foods will not prevent acid reflux, but they may diminish the pain it causes by decreasing the acidity of the bile. In general, alcohol, peppermint, spicy food, chocolate, and fatty foods are thought to trigger heartburn symptoms and should be avoided.
Conversely, some researchers argue that eating acidic foods may actually be beneficial for those suffering from acid reflux and even recommend taking HCL, which is stomach acid. The consumption of acidic foods or HCL supplements may signal the body to slow production of hydrochloric acid, thereby decreasing the acidity levels of the stomach and acid reflux. One study found that the consumption of acidic foods successfully decreased the incidence of heartburn when coupled with a low-carbohydrate diet.
Natural remedies for acid reflux.
On top of these basic do’s and don’ts, here are seven other suggestions for managing acid reflux naturally before you think about turning to PPIs and H2 blockers. They’re a great place to start, and all have some research to support their efficacy:
1. Drinking aloe syrup to prevent heartburn.
Aloe vera is typically thought of for after-sun relief, but it can also help relieve heartburn. The same anti-inflammatory properties that soothe a sunburn can soothe an irritated esophagus and alleviate the symptoms of acid reflux. One study found that daily supplementation with aloe syrup reduced the frequency of heartburn in those diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease.
2. Chewing gum to alleviate heartburn.
One common tactic for immediate relief from the pain of heartburn is to chew gum. Chewing gum stimulates the production of saliva and increases swallowing. Researchers believe that saliva plays an important role in flushing regurgitated stomach acid from the esophagus back into the stomach, providing quick relief. Try chewing gum for half an hour after a meal to keep the esophagus clear of acid.
3. Melatonin to prevent acid reflux.
Melatonin, the “sleep hormone,” is naturally present in the digestive tract and may offer some protection against acid reflux. One study found that supplementation with melatonin decreased the occurrence of heartburn, especially when paired with an over-the-counter acid reflux medication. It is not completely understood how melatonin affects acid reflux, but one explanation could be that the antioxidant properties of melatonin fight inflammation in the esophagus.
4. Acupuncture to prevent heartburn.
Heartburn is the result of the opening between the esophagus and the stomach relaxing and opening to allow the backward flow of contents. Some believe acupuncture may discourage the relaxation of this sphincter, holding the stomach closed and blocking the expulsion of acid up the esophagus. Research is limited but promising for this natural healing therapy.
5. Digestive enzymes for acid reflux.
The amount of time it takes the stomach to digest a meal and empty can play a role in acid reflux as well. Essentially, the slower the stomach empties, the longer the acid levels remain elevated and the stomach holds contents that might be expelled back up the esophagus. Supplementing with digestive enzymes can support the digestion process and promote proper gastric emptying.
6. Licorice for acid reflux.
Licorice root may be able to alleviate the painful symptoms of acid reflux. Heartburn is the result of regurgitated stomach acid irritating the lining of the esophagus. The strong anti-inflammatory propertiesof licorice root may help soothe an irritated esophagus.
7. Pickle juice to calm heartburn.
Got a jar of pickles in the fridge? The juice in the jar might just be the answer to your heartburn. For the same reason that some scientists believe acidic food may actually help with acid reflux symptoms, drinking pickle juice may signal the body to stop producing stomach acid, thereby reducing symptoms. Although the science isn’t quite there on this remedy, many people swear by it.
Acid reflux is a common complaint that affects millions of Americans every day, so it’s nice to know that there are some diet and lifestyle changes that can help reduce pain and inflammation. Just make sure to always talk to your doctor before you make any changes to your diet or lifestyle, especially if you have a chronic health problem or you’re on any medication.