Sixty percent of American adults experience heartburn, also called acid reflux or gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD) each year. GERD has nothing to do with the heart despite the common name. Rather, it is an upwelling of stomach acid from the stomach where it belongs, into the esophagus, where it burns. The burning sensation is the result of stomach acid coming into contact with the delicate walls of the esophagus.
The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is the valve designed to allow food to move from the esophagus downward into the stomach. It can also open upward to allow evacuation or vomiting when needed.
Reflux is a dysfunction whereby stomach acid along with undigested food moves upwards from the stomach, through the sphincter into the esophagus. This happens when food fails to digest in the stomach and begins to putrefy. This rotting food releases gas which opens the valve.
There is a widely held misconception that GERD is the result of too much stomach acid. In fact, this is exactly the opposite of what is happening.
Hydrochloric acid (HCL) is required for the proper digestion of proteins. HCL is secreted into the stomach at a pH of 0.8 - this is highly acidic. The HCL combines with the food until it reaches a pH of 1.5-3, the optimal pH level for protein digestion in the stomach. When the pH of 1.5-3 is reached, the next sphincter opens and allows the food to move into the small intestine for the next stage of digestion. If the pH remains higher than this the food will remain undigested in the stomach for too long.
Because of the very low pH required to digest food in the stomach, it is almost impossible for the body to release too much acid. Reflux is almost always the result of too little stomach acid, not too much!
When there is not enough acid in the stomach, foods do not get broken down. These maldigested foods cause a reflux, or backwards flow, into the esophagus.
While antacids and acid blocker drugs relieve painful symptoms of acid reflux, they should not generally be used for any length of time. These commonly prescribed drugs prevent us from digesting our food. This leads to serious nutrient deficiencies while failing to resolve the underlying, root cause of the problem.
The easiest and least expensive way to remedy this problem is to calm down before we eat. Take a moment to look at your food, to appreciate your food, and to articulate some words of thanks and gratitude. Pay attention to whether you are in stress (fight or flight) mode, or if you have managed to bring yourself into parasympathetic (rest and digest mode). Take some deep breaths and allow the body to calm down. The body will only produce HCL if it is in parasympathetic mode, that’s why it’s called “Rest and Digest.”
If you still need more assistance to get your food to digest, talk to your wellness care professional about appropriate supplements and protocols. Once your food digests and your body is finally be able to assimilate the nourishment you provide to it, you will feel more vitality and more excitement for life and mealtime.
(A version of this article was first published in the Chaffee County Times on August 25, 2017.)
by Jonathan V. Wright, MD and Lane Lenard, Phd (2001)
"Acid-suppressing drugs are more than a 7-billion-dollar-a-year industry in the United States. Yet, this unimaginably large franchise is built on a convenient deception: that virtually eliminating acid from the stomach can only be good for us, and that it will have no consequences today or tomorrow, or twenty or thirty years from now, when we're still popping potent acid-suppressing pills to control symptoms of "hyper-acidity."
"In this book, we emphasize some of the important - even essential - roles stomach acid plays in digestion. We describe how hydrochloric acid, excreted by special cells in the stomach's lining in response to a meal, is a key upstream link in a complex chain of events that culminates in the absorption of vital nutrients that make a long, healthy life possible. Break that chain - by severing the acid link - and the downstream cascade of events required for proper digestion and the continuing health of the gastrointestinal (GI) system - as well as the rest of the body - will be severely impeded." (p. 10)
By Chris Kresser (2007)
"While proton pumps are well known for their role in the stomach, they have a wide variety of functions. Proton pumps are present in just about every cell in the body and are essential for cellular energy production. The FDA has recognized the dangers of PPIs and has indicated that they should only be used for four or eight weeks, depending on the condition (1). Yet an estimated 15 million Americans take a PPI regularly to control symptoms of frequent acid reflux, and some have been on them for years or even decades. In this article, I’ll review the latest research on PPIs and discuss several recent studies that were not included in my original article." Read Article
By Sarah Murphy, MD, and Hana Grobel, MD
"As family physicians, we see many patients ... who are initially prescribed PPIs for mild GERD, continue their medication for a long time, and subsequently suffer various side effects associated with PPIs. The question that arises is how to safely wean these patients off PPIs." Read Article