Nobody disputes the fact that heartburn is caused by stomach acid coming up into the esophagus.
It burns! If you’ve ever had it, even once, you know how miserable that can be.
Heartburn is also known as acid reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).
We are led to believe that the problem is caused by our stomach making too much hydrochloric acid aka HCL.
Not so fast.
In fact, in most cases heartburn is actually caused by not having ENOUGH stomach acid.
What really happens is that if you don’t have enough HCL, your food just sits in your stomach and doesn’t break down.
The carbs ferment, the fats become rancid and proteins putrefy. They build up gas and that gas forces open the valve known as the LES (lower esophageal sphincter) that connects your esophagus to your stomach.
When that valve opens under the pressure of all that putrefying mess, stomach acid seeps up into the esophagus.
And It burns! That’s really what causes acid reflux (for most people).
When this process repeats over time, the LES valve weakens and heartburn becomes more frequent.
Why Stomach Acid is Good for You
I talked about why stomach acid is a good thing previously. Dr. Jonathan Wright, a known expert in this field from the Tahoma Clinic, shares some of the essential benefits that stomach acid provides:
- Stomach acid promotes the digestion and absorption of many vital nutrients (Like Vitamin B12, for example. Low vitamin B12 can cause depression among other disorders.)
- Stomach acid helps digest protein by stimulating Pepsin (an enzyme) production.
- Stomach acid prevents bacterial and fungal overgrowth. This is important for protecting us from things like cholera, e. coli, salmonella and many other bacteria.
- Those with low stomach acid are vulnerable to a wide range of disorders such as: pernicious anemia, ulcerative colitis, chronic hepatitis, gallstones, type 1 Diabetes, stomach cancer, and many others.
HCL is something we want, in proper amounts, to keep us healthy. It is not something to tamp down unnecessarily.
BTW, if you want to test yourself to see if you have low stomach acid, pop over to my article.
Antacids, PPIs and H2 Blockers
Many people with occasional heartburn get relief from Tums or other antacids. For others a Proton Pump Inhibitor (PPI) like Prilosec or Nexium or an H2 Blocker like Zantac or Tagamet provide some relief.
Antacids, H2 Blockers and PPIs work by suppressing your stomach acid production. That would seem like a good idea, right?
PPIs and antacids can help, but they were only meant to be temporary. In fact, they are only recommended to be taken for no more than eight weeks.
But here’s the bad news. PPIs and other acid blockers/suppressors can actually cause harm with prolonged use.
According to Chris Kresser, functional medicine practitioner and all-around-health-guru, acid suppressing drugs have been shown to:
- Increase the risk of bone fractures
- Decrease resistance to infections
- Increase bacterial overgrowth
- Reduce the absorption of essential nutrients ((including B12, magnesium, calcium, iron, folate, and zinc)
- Increase the risk of cancer and other diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, depression, anxiety, autoimmune disease, and asthma)
- Increase the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attack
- Damage kidney function
- Negatively affect cognitive function
Those are some really good reasons to avoid antacid or acid-suppressing drugs. If you are ready to ditch acid suppressing medications, read my article discussing how to taper off of acid blocking medications.
Natural Remedies for Treating Heartburn
I offer you several natural remedies for treating heartburn and avoiding it upfront. I hope that you will share any remedies you may have found.
Be sure to identify any food allergies or drug side effects that may be causing acid reflux. You’d be surprised how often these two issues complicate digestion.
- Betaine HCL–this is actual stomach acid and can be taken in supplement form. Although it may sound counter-intuitive to take more stomach acid when you have acid reflux, the problem actually stems from the underproduction of HCL. You will not want to use this remedy while taking acid suppressing medicines. An HCL (Hydrochloric Acid) Dosage Challenge* is recommended to determine how much to take.
- Lemon Juice–a couple tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice mixed with a small amount of water can suppress heartburn symptoms.
- Apple Cider Vinegar--swallow 1-2 tablespoons of Apple Cider Vinegar during the early part of a meal.
- Digestive bitters–swallow some “bitters” (such as gentian or wormwood) before each meal.
- Digestive enzymes–take enzymes with each meal, particularly with protein, to help digest your food more quickly.
These remedies are meant to enhance digestion by promoting stomach acid production.
*HCL Dosage Challenge
The HCL Dosage Challenge is used to determine how much hydrochloric acid you need to supplement at mealtime.
A word of caution before beginning the HCL Dosage Challenge:
Every person will not experience the same symptoms or reactions as another. Therefore, if you experience any discomforting symptoms or reactions please stop the HCL Dosage Challenge and consult with your healthcare practitioner.
TAKE WITH MEALS ONLY!!!
Meal 1: Take one 150 mg Betaine/HCL with Pepsin (be sure your HCL supplement has Pepsin) capsule/tablet after the first few bites of a substantial complex meal (i.e., one that contains protein). Do not test a small meal or one that consists of only fruit, a light salad or a simple bowl of cereal.
STOP taking the HCL if and when you get a feeling of warmth or pressure in the stomach, and especially if irritation (heartburn, stomach ache) occurs. That warmth sensation may feel a bit like drinking hard liquor on an empty stomach.
Contact me for brand recommendations.
Meal 2: Take two (2) tablets at the beginning of the next complex meal. Stop if you experience any stomach irritation (as above).
Meal 3: Take three (3) tablets at the beginning of the next complex meal, and so on with successive complex meals. If more than five HCL tablets are required, repeat the HCL Challenge and switch to a high dose, 700 mg capsule.
Contact me for brand recommendations.
Remember to STOP taking the HCL if and when you get a feeling of warmth or pressure in the stomach, and especially if irritation (heartburn, stomach ache) occurs.
Drink a tall glass of water to quench the reaction or take ½ teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in a cup of water, if it is necessary to neutralize the excess acidity.
The last dosage which was comfortable to you will be the initial per-meal dose of supplemental HCL.
Note: When determining the proper HCL supplement dosage:
- If burning sensation occurs ½ hour or more after the meal, then you haven’t taken enough hydrochloric acid; increase dose by 1 per meal to enhance digestion.
- If burning occurs within 5 minutes of ingesting the acid, then you have taken too much hydrochloric acid; reduce dose by 1 per meal. Eat a few bites of food to utilize the HCL and to reduce discomfort.
- If a burning sensation occurs within 5 minutes after taking JUST ONE tablet/capsule, inform your healthcare practitioner as additional stomach healing agents may be indicated.
- If you take 7 of the high dose capsules (700 mg per cap) and still feel no warming or burning sensation, additional digestive aid nutrients such as enzymes or pituitary support may be indicated. Stop taking the HCL after 7 of the high dose capsules and see your healthcare practitioner.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar, alcohol, caffeine, excessive amounts of raw vegetables, capsaicin and other hot pepper byproducts, and tannins in black teas during the challenge.
Low stomach acid, in addition to being the cause of heartburn, is frequently the underlying cause of many digestive disorders. The ramifications of poor digestion extend far and wide in the body including cognitive and emotional disorders.
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Joli Tripp and Mind Blowing Wellness are not medical doctors nor licensed medical professionals. No comment or recommendation should be construed as being a medical diagnosis. If you suffer from a medical or pathological condition, you should consult an appropriate healthcare provider.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.
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Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You: Natural Relief from Heartburn, Indigestion, Reflux & GERD,. by Jonathan V. Wright, MD and Lane Lenard, Ph.D.