Acid reflux, also known as heartburn or indigestion, is a common digestive complaint. It occurs when the acidic contents of the stomach backflow through the lower oesphageal sphincter (LOS). The LOS is a circular muscle, which under normal conditions prevents the stomach contents from going back into the oesophagus. Many of us have experienced an occasional episode of reflux when we have overindulged in rich food. These are not a concern. When it becomes a frequent event, further investigation should be undertaken. It’s a warning sign for something else going on. The chronic form of this condition is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GORD or GERD).
Symptoms of reflux
- Heartburn – the sensation of pain and heat in the central chest area. Get your doctor to investigate frequent chest pain to rule out cardiac causes.
- The taste of vomit often referred to as “water brash.”
- A sore throat not related to respiratory tract infections
- Difficulty swallowing due to inflammation in the oesophagus
- Hoarseness of voice. If the reflux is reaching up to your larynx/vocal cords and causing irritation
- Halitosis – bad breath
4 Reasons you don’t want reflux
- The acid in the reflux can damage the lining of the oesophagus. The digestive juices in the stomach need to be acidic so they can break down protein. A thick layer of mucus protects the lining of the stomach from the gastric acid. The cells lining the oesophagus do not have this protection and the acid “burns” them. Continual exposure to acid creates inflammation. This leads to pathological changes in the cells resulting in strictures, Barrett’s oesophagus and, in the worst case, oesophageal cancer.
- Reflux can also damage the lungs and worsen the symptoms of asthma. Some research suggests it may be a cause of adult-onset asthma.
- Acid reflux can damage the enamel on your teeth.
- It’s uncomfortable and painful and reduces your quality of life.
What causes reflux?
Reflux occurs when the resting tone of the LOS is compromised. Anything causing increased pressure in the abdomen, irritation of the sphincter or changes in signals from the nervous system can trigger reflux.
- Abdominal weight gain
- A hiatus hernia
- Pregnancy especially in the last trimester when the fetus is compressing the stomach.
- A large meal
- Delayed stomach emptying due to low hydrochloric acid production.
- Problems with the pyloric sphincter (releases the churned food from the stomach and into the small intestine).
- Foods that increase stomach acid production or irritate the LOS.
- Food allergies and intolerances.
- Certain medications including calcium channel blockers, benzodiazepines, theophylline, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs).
- Stress (physical, environmental, emotional and psychological)
Medical treatment for reflux
Conventional medical treatment includes antacids, H2 inhibitors and proton pump inhibitors. These act to reduce the amount of stomach acid, so it doesn’t damage the lining of your oesophagus. The downside is a reduction in stomach acid can create other digestive symptoms including bacterial overgrowth and nutrient deficiencies.
Natural treatments for reflux
- Stop smoking
- Maintain a healthy weight and reduce abdominal weight
- Eat smaller portions
- Don’t lie down flat (i.e., lounge on the couch immediately after meals)
- Eat at least two hours before bed.
- Chew your food well. It will spend less time in your stomach, you won’t produce as much acid, and you’ll naturally eat less.
- Elevate your bed head, especially if you wake up with a sore throat or get woken by reflux at night.
- Manage stress
- Regular breathing exercises
Foods to limit/avoid
These either stimulate acid production or irritate the LOS.
- Spicy foods
- High-fat foods
- Carbonated drinks
- Peppermint (tea, sweets, chewing gums)
- Any foods you are allergic/intolerance of can also contribute to reflux.
Herbal medicine for reflux
The lifestyle and diet changes are the cornerstone of Naturopathic treatment but, sometimes people need extra support. Herbal medicine is very effective for reflux. I have a high success rate in treating this condition in my clinic. I use a combination of herbs from the following categories. Prescription ratios and doses are tailored to the individual.
Herbs to reduce inflammation
- Marshmallow, in a glycetract form
- Slippery elm
Herbs to support the tone of the LOS
Herbs to support digestion
Herbs to support the nervous system
- Lemon Balm
- St John’s wort
- Holy basil
- Plus many more
**Work with a qualified herbalist especially if you are on any pharmaceutical medications or have other health conditions as some herbs may not be suitable for you.
Reflux doesn’t have to be something you’re stuck with for life. Use these natural reflux treatments to reduce symptoms, improve your digestion and health.
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Norelle Hentschel is a degree qualified Naturopath and operates a clinic in Crows Nest, North Sydney. She enjoys helping people feel better and can assist with a broad range of health conditions or general health maintenance.
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