I was recently sitting with a patient who, during the appointment, used the fist-to-the-sternum motion signaling her heartburn was acting up. Like so many of you who suffer from that uncomfortable burning sensation multiple times per day, this poor lady found herself a victim to acid reflux. Though heartburn symptoms sometimes require medication, most of the time they can be decreased with simple lifestyle changes any of us could manage.
Heartburn, or the sensation of burning in your throat and esophagus, is a symptom — but of what? Sometimes it’s excess acid in the stomach touching the esophagus which causes the burning sensation. On the other hand, however strange it may seem, it may actually mean not enough acid is in the stomach. The thought is that any dysfunction in the stomach (meaning both too much or not enough acid) can cause the pain and discomfort that we commonly call “acid reflux”. The truth is that I have patients who have “reflux,” but once they are treated with the goal of increasing the acid in their stomachs, their symptoms are relieved! On the other end of the spectrum, though, it’s important to note that excess stomach acid irritates the esophagus chronically and can actually lead to cancerous changes in the tissue.
If you’re dealing with the symptoms of acid reflux, here’s what you should do:
1. What Am I Eating? Are there any foods you’ve been eating recently that seem to make your reflux worse? If so, cut them out. Common culprits include: mints, tomatoes and tomato products, citrus, chocolate and coffee. The problem is that cutting out these foods might work for you, but it also might not. If removing these foods doesn’t do the trick, consider seeing your Naturopath and have a food allergy panel taken and then avoid the foods that come up highest.
2. Do I Have a Sensible Schedule? Eating large meals late at night and then going to bed soon after is basically asking for reflux. A stomach that is full of food does not put pressure on the junction between the stomach and esophagus when kept upright. But, if your stomach is full of food and you lie down, the chances are higher that pressure builds at the top opening of the stomach and the contents can irritate the esophagus and cause burning. Eat your last meal earlier and make it a smaller meal than you’ve been having. Follow the old saying: Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper.
3. Am I Stressed While Munching? Being upset while eating is ill-advised for several reasons. Strong emotions can engage the “fight or flight” aspect of the nervous system which turns off the digestive system. While stressed out, our digestive juices dry up, the gentle churning of the stomach and intestines ceases and the body prepares for battle. Doesn’t sound like a good time to eat that burrito, does it? Unfortunately the common Western lifestyle demands that we eat while we are driving (a perfect setting for “fight or flight”), walking, standing, talking on the phone… Take some time with your meal, chew your food and even feel some joy in eating and see if that doesn’t help you feel better.
4. Have I Gotten My Bitters? Check out my previous article on bitters, as they can also help reduce heartburn when used appropriately.
5. Triage The Burning. If your heartburn has come up suddenly, try an herbal remedy to bring it down a bit. Drink a cup of licorice tea. Licorice is a demulcent, meaning it creates a nice soothing coating from your mouth all the way to your stomach. another remedy is to suck on a slippery elm lozenge. The bark of the slippery elm tree is also a demulcent and sucking on a lozenge creates a soothing coating that can last longer and be a bit more heavy duty than the licorice. Or, if neither of these are on hand, chew a handful of fennel seeds. Fennel is an excellent ‘stomachic’ meaning it can quell any imbalances in the stomach and digestive system, plus it tastes great after a meal!
Cheers to eating delicious foods without fear!