If you were to believe advertisements for antacids and other over-the-counter digestive relief treatments, you would think stomach acid is a bad thing. Commercials show animations of stomach acid creeping up your esophagus causing glowing red nodes of pain to throb. Relief is only to be found via the neutralizing medication they are peddling. But the truth about stomach acid is it’s a vital part of the digestive process. Interfering with the stomach’s proper function by stifling stomach acid negatively affects how we digest our foods. So what can we do about heartburn?
Although it is widely believed that heartburn is a result of too much stomach acid, often the opposite is true: Not enough stomach acid is present to do the necessary digesting, a condition called hypochlorhydria. This probably sounds counter-intuitive. Normally, hydrochloric acid (HCl) is secreted by the stomach when you start eating your food (it can start as soon as you see it or smell it). When the food reaches the stomach, the acid begins breaking it down. If not enough acid is present, the food can end up fermenting, a process that gives off gasses. This gas, as well as causing burping, bloating and indigestion, can push stomach acid back into the esophagus causing a burning sensation commonly referred to as heartburn.
If, at this point, an over-the-counter medication is taken to neutralize the stomach acid, you’re effectively stopping the digestive process dead in its tracks. Although it provides relief from the pain, you haven’t gotten to the root cause of the problem and are actually making the situation worse in the long run.
HCl is a very important digestive agent. It is essential for breaking down proteins and if proteins aren’t broken down enough they can’t be absorbed by the body. Stomach acid is also needed to stimulate the pancreas and small intestine for the next steps in the digestive process. Again, if these processes aren’t triggered you cannot digest your food properly. Stomach acid is also one of the first lines of defense against pathogenic bacteria. A lack of stomach acid can mean more bad bacteria getting in through the digestive tract leading to food poisoning, illness and disease.
As we age, our ability to produce stomach acid tends to decrease. If we add to this a poor diet of processed foods, a tendency to overeat as well as eating the wrong things we have a recipe for chronic heartburn.
As stated before, halting the digestive process in the stomach by taking an antacid makes the problem of hypochlorhydria worse. One of the reasons for hypochlorhydria is a lack of the essential components to make HCl. If you’re not digesting your food properly by interfering with stomach acid, you’re not getting the raw components you need to make more stomach acid, which could solve the problem. This starts a vicious cycle where people become dependent upon digestive interventions that only exacerbate the problem instead of getting to the root cause and making adjustments.
The following are some suggestions for turning around a compromised digestive system. Remember, these suggestions are not meant to treat or diagnose a medical condition. If you’re having a serious problem that isn’t turned around by simple holistic interventions, see a natural health practitioner.
Identify the offending foods – The best way to figure out which foods are causing the issue is to keep a food diary. Heavy, greasy meals are often the culprits because they tend to lay the heaviest burden on the stomach, although other foods may also cause problems. If you’re not producing enough stomach acid to break these foods down, that’s when heartburn strikes. Once you’ve determined what’s causing the problem, the best plan is to avoid these foods altogether. You can try reintroducing them down the road once your digestive system is back on track.
Know when to stop – Too much food in the stomach is one of the most common causes for heartburn. Just as if you put too much wood on the fire, you suffocate it, too much food in the stomach suffocates the digestive fire. If a stomach is overwhelmed it has no way of keeping up with acid secretion. This causes gas and bloating and forces acid into the esophagus. The common recommendation of eating only until you’re two thirds full is useful here, but so is eating only whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods. You’re much less likely to overeat the natural stuff versus the junk.
Don’t eat close to bedtime – If you’re having problems digesting your meal, reclining only exacerbates the problem. Lying down allows more of the stomach acid to creep back up the esophagus causing that awful burning sensation and little chance of sleep. If you’re eating too close to your bedtime, your body is still struggling with this food when you lie down for sleep. Finish your last meal at least three hours before bed and avoid nighttime snacking.
Try digestive enzymes – Digestive enzymes are natural proteins made by both plants and animals that break down foods in the digestive tract. They are naturally present in our digestive system as part of the digestive process. However, some of us may need a little help in order to break the cycle discussed above and start digesting our foods properly. Supplementing enzymes and hydrochloric acid will assist in breaking down the foods. This will ensure that you’re digesting proteins and chelating minerals properly and getting the nutrition you need from your foods. Absorbing all the nutrients your body needs will help it to heal the digestive system and avoid future cases of heartburn.
Try food combining – I recently wrote about food combining and mentioned this is a good practice when your digestive process is compromised. Chronic heartburn is a good indication of this. Taking a break from eating in your usual way is necessary to make sure the digestive process is as simple as possible for your poor sick stomach. Try following the rules of food combining for a few weeks or until things seem to be back on track.
The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto. Doug specializes in private in-home holistic cooking lessons.