Heartburn isn’t just annoying. It can be downright painful and could have long term health consequences if not treated. Heartburn is usually an indication that one’s digestive system is not working optimally. In addition to impacting your ability to absorb nutrients, an inefficient digestive tract will usually lead to fatigue, the inability to concentrate, skin problems, and more.
Heartburn may occur after you eat certain foods, but it can also be due to improper stomach acid levels. Conventional treatment methods include taking antacids or acid-blocking drugs, but this only addresses the symptoms of the condition and not the root cause of the problem. Additionally, antacids can make the problem worse by impairing your digestion! For this reason, it’s important to do a proper health intake with a naturopath doctor to heal the condition for good.
Heartburn or indigestion occurs when you have a feeling of fullness in the abdomen. It usually radiates up your esophagus and feels like a burning sensation near your heart. In most cases, the valve that keeps acid in the stomach stays open thus allowing the acidic contents of the stomach to reflux upwards.
People experience heartburn for many different reasons. The most well-known cause is due to dietary choices. However, heartburn can also be linked to improper stomach acid levels (both increased and decreased levels), infections, or structural problems.
Stomach acid production naturally decreases with age, which means that many people already have low stomach acid levels. Interestingly, research shows that lack of gastric acid secretion is a more common cause of heartburn than hyperacidity conditions.
Low acid levels contributes to heartburn because your stomach cannot properly digest the food you eat, leading to increased gastric pressure and upwelling of stomach contents which causes the burning sensation you feel in your esophagus.
This means that blocking stomach acid production with antacids isn’t an effective form of treatment for heartburn. It may also make the condition worse by inhibiting your ability to digest food.
Heartburn is commonly confused with reflux esophagus, which occurs when you overeat and not as a result of too much acid production.
Antacids raise your gastric pH to 3.5 or above, which inhibits pepsin (the enzyme needed to digest protein). This can help reduce symptoms of heartburn, but it also causes problems with protein digestion and mineral absorption amongst other issues.
Also, raising your gastric pH can change your gut bacteria and cause an overgrowth of certain harmful bacteria, which can worsen your symptoms and cause other digestive problems.
Instead of taking an antacid, you need to get down to the root cause of the problem to stop the symptoms at its source so that they go away for good!
PPIs or Proton Pump Inhibitors are the most commonly prescribed pharamceuticals for heartburn relief. In fact, In 2017, spending on proton pump inhibitors by public drug programs totaled $198.2 million in Canada, ranking the drug seventh in terms of public drug program spending1.
If you have been to a doctor recently for heartbrun complaints, you are most likely going to be given a prescription such as Prilosec, Prevacid, Nexium, Dexilant etc. These drugs work by inhibiting stomach acid production.
While inhibiting acid may seem like a good idea for those that are suffering from acid reflux, this is just a band aid solution. By offering temporary relief from heartbrun, these drugs create a bigger problem especially if used over the long term (more than 3 months).
Long term use of proton pump inhibitors have been linked to all of the following2,3,4:
- Increase in bone fractures
- Increase in the risk of community-acquired pneumonia
- Increase in serious gastrointestinal infections such as Clostridium difficile infection
- Increase risk of developing chronic kidney disease
- Increase risk of developing dementia
- Increase risk of heart attacks
- Increased risk of bowel inflammation (colitis)
- Several vitamin, mineral & nutrient deficiencies (example Vitamin B12)
- Increased risk of stomach cancer
- Increased risk of early mortality (death)
Most people are unaware of the above risks so it is important to have a frank discussion with your GP before initiating treatment of heartburn with these medications.
Many health conditions begin in the gut. Heartburn is one of them. Masking your symptoms with medications won’t make the problem go away. It might even make it worse!
A naturopathic doctor is highly trained to assess and treat the underlying cause of your condition, not just the symptoms. The first step in treating heartburn naturally usually involves testing the functionality of the stomach’s ability to secrete acid. Your doctor may need to see a list of foods you commonly eat to determine which are causing adverse symptoms. More testing may be done to determine the cause of your condition. From there, your doctor will be able to determine the best way to treat the condition using natural methods.
Treating your heartburn naturally typically also involves boosting your stomach and digestive processes so that you can break down food without painful symptoms.
Using dietary interventions to support stomach and digestive health helps reduce heartburn symptoms by restoring the health of your gut bacteria so that it’s easier to digest your food. It also eliminates foods that may be causing digestive upset.
The following remedies may be used as part of your natural heartburn treatment:
- Digestive aids: herbs and nutrients that promote digestive secretions and enhance the process of digestion and assimilation of food.
- Demulcents: Mucus promoting herbs that protect the gastrointestinal lining and reduce pain/burn sensation in the throat/chest
- Probiotics: the “good” bacteria in your gut that helps improve digestive health
- Pancreatic enzymes: these enzymes help break down fat, carbohydrates, and protein in the stomach to reduce symptoms of heartburn and help you absorb your food better
- Bovine lactoferrin: provides anti-infective and anti inflammatory ability to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria that damages intestinal flora (5)
- Anti-inflammatory diet: removing foods from your diet that are hard to digest and replacing them with ones that reduce inflammation helps make heartburn go away
- Canadian Institute for Health Information. 2017. Prescribed drug spending in Canada, 2017: A focus on public drug programs. Ottawa, ON: CIHI.https://secure.cihi.ca/free_products/pdex2017-report-en.pdf
- Eusebi LH et al. Global prevalence of, and risk factors for, gastro-oesophageal reflux symptoms: a meta-analysis. Gut. 2018 Mar;67(3):430-40.
- Jacob Schoenfeld, J. and Grady, D. “Adverse Effects Associated With Proton Pump Inhibitors.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 2016: 176(2):172-174.
- Xie Y, Bowe B, Yan Y, Xian H, Li T, Al-Aly Z. Estimates of all cause mortality and cause specific mortality associated with proton pump inhibitors among US veterans: cohort study. BMJ. June 1, 2019. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l1580
- Yamauchi K, Wakabayashi H, Shin K, Takase M. Bovine lactoferrin: benefits and mechanism of action against infections. Biochem Cell Biol. 2006;84(3):291-6.