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The Truth about Heartburn (and why you may want to think twice before taking acid blockers)

Do you struggle with the uncomfortable feeling of acid reflux or heartburn?

Are you relying on antacids or taking a proton pump inhibitor?

If so, you're not alone - Reflux is one of the most common digestive complaints I work with, and antacids are one of the most commonly purchased medications on the market.

While reflux is common, it certainly isn't 'normal', and relying on antacids can often do more harm than good (especially over the long-term).

Today on the blog we're exploring WHY reflux happens in the first place, as well as some of the concerns associate with acid blocks and my favourite natural remedies.

The Difference between Acid Reflux, Heartburn and GERD

That burning sensation in the throat and heart space after eating can be called many things: acid reflux, heartburn and GERD. But what is it, and what’s the difference between them?

Well, to put it simply, both acid reflux and heartburn are the same thing, while GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease) is basically the chronic condition of experiencing acid reflux constantly (that means more than twice a week).

Some common symptoms of acid reflux, heartburn and GERD include tightness in the chest, unpleasant taste in the mouth, dry cough that does not go away, wheezing, voice roughness, and a feeling that needs to clear your throat often. Heartburn (aka acid reflux) is extremely common – but contrary to what you’ve probably heard, it definitely isn’t normal, and it is completely misunderstood.

Let’s dive into why so many people experience acid reflux, and some tangible takeaways to help curb that uncomfortable feeling.

Why Reflux Happens

There is a lot of confusion around heartburn and it's generally very misunderstood.

Here’s why: Heartburn is most often associated it with having too much stomach acid, when reality, it is most often caused by too little acid (yep, you read that right!).

Here's what's happening:

When food enters your stomach, your stomach needs to get your food to a certain pH (typically between 2 and 3) before its released from your stomach into your small intestine to continue the process of digestion.

When there’s not enough stomach acid, food sits in your stomach for way longer than it should, and it starts to ferment. This fermentation leads to gas and this gas puts a lot of pressure on the esophageal sphincter, which then leads to acid splash back into the esophagus–hello heartburn.

Having too little stomach acid also means that your stomach has to 'churn' things around far more aggressively to break them down. This can also lead to the acid splash-back associated with heartburn - yikes!

So here’s our big takeaway: heartburn is not caused by too much stomach acid - and popping antacids, which are aimed at lowering or decreasing stomach acid, are actually doing the opposite action we need in the body.

The Problem with Acid Blockers

The most common approach to relieving heartburn is to take acid blocking medications like TUMS, Gaviscon, Pepcid or prescription Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPI’s). Although these medications can definitely help to relieve symptoms, I consider them more of a band-aid solution as they ignore the root cause. They also do not come without their own set of side effects – especially when taken long-term.

So how do they work? Acid blockers do exactly what their name suggests – they block the secretion of stomach acid. But as we just discussed, stomach acid is a crucial step in the digestive process! It sterilizes bacteria found in food, it starts the chemical breakdown of food, and it “turns on” the rest of the digestive system. When acid production is chronically suppressed through medications, the entire digestive sequence is impaired which can lead to nutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, dysbiosis (overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut) and symptoms like gas, bloating, belching, fatigue, loose stools, and constipation.

Unpleasant, right?

How to Soothe Heartburn and GERD naturally

Before reaching for an acid blocker, try one of these:

  1. Aloe Vera – Coats, soothes and may help to repair the esophageal and stomach lining. I like to use this as both a ‘preventative’ before meals and a ‘reliever’ once heartburn is already present.

  2. DGL Tablets (Licorice) – These are my fav! DGL is a demulcent, meaning it relieves inflammation and irritation. When mixed with saliva, DGL promotes the secretion of mucus, which coats the esophageal lining to prevent irritation from acid ‘splash back’.

  3. Slippery Elm Bark Tea – Slippery elm also has demulcent properties. Traditional medicinals make a great blend with slippery elm called Throat Coat.

  4. Digestive Bitters – Bitters stimulate the production of stomach acid and can be helpful when heartburn is caused by low HCL.

  5. Breathing Exercises – Stress is a huge trigger for heartburn and further suppresses HCL. Breathing exercises before and after meals can be really helpful!

Since heartburn is often rooted in low stomach acid, you may also consider exploring some options for increasing your production of stomach acid. Keep in mind, though, that any inflammation or damage to the lining of your stomach and esophagus needs to be healed FIRST. A few of my favourite supports for low HCL include:

  • Apple Cider Vinegar

  • Digestive Bitters

  • Betaine Hydrochloride (HCL) Tablets

Diet and lifestyle changes can also play a major role in controlling acid reflux symptoms. Here are a few proven and tackle tips and tricks you can start incorporating into your daily life today:

  • Eat mindfully by chewing slowly and properly (15-20 times per bite), putting your fork down between bites, smell your food, sit at a table and put screens away.

  • Try eating smaller, more frequent meals

  • Finish your last meal of the day 3-4 hours before bedtime

  • Take a slow and mindful walk after a meal to help the process of digestion

  • Try to avoid drinking water with meals. Drinking large amounts of fluids with meals dilutes stomach acid.

  • Include

  • Avoid trigger foods like spicy and fatty foods, high-fat dairy products, certain spices, citrus fruits and juices, acidic foods and beverages, coffee and black tea, chocolate, mint products, onions, garlic, and tomato-based products.

The bottom line: acid reflux, heartburn and GERD are all treatable through a combination of lifestyle changes, nutrition, and medication as needed. Chatting with a nutritionist can help you get to the root cause of these symptoms and tailor a personalized protocol to get you on the path to healing your digestion.

Note: Always consult your practitioner before starting new supplements! And if you are taking a PPI, it is a good idea to consult with your Doctor before making changes to your dosage.


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