Acid reflux or better known “heartburn” is one of the most common digestive complaints in the adult population. It’s estimated that at least 40 percent of adults experience heartburn at least once weekly but often much more frequently. Symptoms of heartburn can include acidic taste in your mouth, burning sensation in the esophagus, bad breath, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing or hoarseness, burping, gas, nausea, persistent dry cough, and regurgitation of food.
Traditionally the approach for treatment is to suppress these symptoms with medications to reduce stomach acid. The problem with this approach is that this doesn’t fix the root cause and can lead to secondary complications with chronic use of these medications. The functional medicine approach would be to address the root causes and provide a natural treatment alternative.
The most common cause of acid reflux is due to underlying inflammation in the GI tract. Inflammation most commonly is caused by food sensitivities or allergies and/or bacterial infection or imbalance. Other common causes of acid reflux can include:
- Hiatal Hernia which means the upper portion of the stomach protrudes above the diaphragm, which allows stomach acid to reflux into the esophagus
- Aging can often times lead to a reduction in stomach acid production, and therefore the food that normally would be digested well, doesn’t digest as easily or fully. This can lead to regurgitation of food.
- Obesity can lead to increased abdominal pressure causing reflux to occur
- Certain medications can induce acid reflux. Ibuprofen is well known to be a trigger and is widely used on a regular basis as well as antibiotics
- Smoking, pregnancy, and eating large meals are other contributing factors
The most interesting point to consider when reviewing the above list of common causes of reflux is that many of the causes can be addressed with proper treatment especially with a functional medicine approach. This would include doing comprehensive food sensitivity and allergy testing and stool testing. We would consider adding supplementation when needed to support proper digestion such as digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid support, and probiotics.
The most concerning issue surrounding chronic heartburn is if it’s left untreated it can lead to chronic inflammation of the esophagus and increased risk of cancer. However, the second most concerning issue surrounding chronic heartburn like mentioned previously, is that heartburn medications were never intended for long-term use. You have to consider what happens if you are regularly using products like Tums, Zantac, or Prilosec. We need stomach acid to digest our food right? What happens when we repeatedly suppress it?
It unfortunately creates more of an issue with digesting our food, which leads to worsening reflux. Long-term using these medications can lead to malabsorption, nutrient deficiencies, which then can lead to chronic health conditions such as osteoporosis. The other concern with long-term use of acid reducers is that stomach acid is a first line defense against parasites and bacteria found in our food and environment. So what happens if a person has a greatly reduced amount of stomach acid and the sushi they are eating contains a parasite? I know it’s gross to think about… but trust me, it happens!