Last week, Marissa came into the office with a surprising story to tell.
This petite 30-year-old teacher had returned from a family barbeque over the holiday, which she enjoyed very much—until she experienced sharp pain in her chest and throat. Could she be having a heart attack at such a young age, she wondered, because the chest pains and burning were so intense.
Fortunately, a doctor was present who determined that the problem was, in fact, heartburn, or reflux, a condition that Marissa hadn’t experienced in the past (yes, her age was in her favor here). It was a memorable evening, however, not just because of the physical discomfort she felt but the panic that accompanied it.
Heartburn and a heart attack may present with similar pain, so being checked by a doctor to determine what the symptoms really are is a good idea. When she did, Marissa was relieved to know the pain was reflux and resolved to take any measures necessary to avoid a reoccurrence. She also learned that she was in good company because more than one-third of the population suffers from some form of acid reflux. Let’s explore this uncomfortable yet common complaint so it won’t surprise you after your next meal.
But wait–what IS acid reflux?
Heartburn and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) are caused by acidic digestive juices coming back up to the esophagus. While most people think this painful condition comes from excess stomach acid, you might be surprised to learn that reflux often arises when the sufferer doesn’t have enough stomach acid to digest certain foods.
How does the condition feel?
For many people, the key sign is a sudden burning sensation in the chest or throat after eating. It can take different forms for different patients, anywhere from mild to intense. In addition to that burn, reflux sufferers may also experience
- a bitter taste in the mouth,
- waking at night with difficulty breathing,
- dry mouth,
- bad breath, or
- gas and bloating after eating.
With GERD, the more severe form of reflux, sometimes that initial burning feeling can lead to even more irritation.
There’s another form of reflux too, sometimes called “silent reflux.” In this condition, the person feels no burning sensation. Instead, these patients may present with a persistent cough, hoarseness, or constantly clearing of their throat. These symptoms happen usually at night while sleeping.
What are some common causes of reflux?
Reflux can be an independent condition, or it may be related to other factors such as poor digestion, pregnancy, or hiatal hernia. Unfortunately, simple aging can result in lower acid production, which in turn can create discomfort.
Lifestyle is a huge cause of reflux, especially where our eating habits are concerned.
Our culture is so hurried around meals that we place little focus on nurturing our digestive systems. We take in nutrients, but we don’t allow time for our bodies to fully assimilate them—and reflux results. Here are a few eating habits to be alert for:
- eating too fast without properly chewing
- eating only 1-2 meals per day instead of smaller, more frequent meals
- overeating with large portions
- eating later and later in the evening. A meal within three hours of bedtime is a sure recipe for discomfort.
Your sleep position can make a difference, too, since many of the symptoms and much of the damage of heartburn often happen during the night.
Can certain foods trigger reflux?
Absolutely! Trigger foods vary from one patient to the next, but it’s no wonder that Marissa first experienced heartburn at a barbecue: Tomatoes, garlic and other spicy ingredients, and greasy foods are all very high on the list of common reflux triggers.
Other frequent triggers include citrus fruits and juices, processed cheeses, alcohol, caffeine, corn products, fried foods, and processed vegetable oils. For some people, mint/peppermint and dairy are also a problem. Unfortunately, some report that chocolate causes symptoms as well. (I’ve noticed myself that occasionally I will experience some discomfort after eating chocolate…darn.)
Not sure if a food or eating habit could be a trigger? Just remember this: In general, studies on reflux and GERD point to a lack of mindful eating patterns, overeating, and an overprocessed diet.
Hmm. Are you beginning to connect this with any recent episodes of heartburn or discomfort? I hope so—that’s the first step to prevention!
What can I do to decrease symptoms?
Of course, consulting your doctor is a necessary step. You need an accurate diagnosis, and your doctor may want to monitor further because persistent reflux or GERD can have unwanted consequences. Since over-the-counter drugs and some prescriptions have their own issues, taking measures to contribute to your own health is well worth the effort.
Start by eliminating some of the repeat offender foods listed above. Next, try making lifestyle choices around eating times and portions. Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly. To improve your food selections and heal your digestive tract, try increasing fiber intake, supporting healthy bacteria with probiotics, reducing processed grains, and eating high quality protein. Finally, for those with nighttime reflux troubles, put a wedge under your mattress at the head (as opposed to pillows propped directly under your head).
Are there foods that might help my heartburn?
Many flavorful, colorful foods are on the “yes, please!” list because they have been shown to improve digestion and typically don’t trigger reflux, either. These foods include
- live-bacteria fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, and sauerkraut
- one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in water before meals
- green leafy vegetables
- artichokes, asparagus, papaya, cucumbers, and pumpkin and other squashes
- bone broth with collagen
- wild salmon
- chamomile, ginger, and papaya leaf teas. These are soothing to the digestive system and excellent additions after meals.
Also, look for ways to use coconut water, coconut oil and other healthy fats when you prepare your meals. These contain needed nutrients and are reflux-safe choices, too!
What are some other natural ways to ease the fire?
Acupuncture and acupressure are shown to help with reflux. The ancients had a good understanding of this condition. In Chinese medicine, reflux is actually called “rebellious qi” because the body’s energy is reversed, going upward instead of staying down. (Pretty accurate description of the feeling of that burn, too!) Treatment consists of redirecting that energy flow in the right direction.
Supplementation is also helpful:
- Take digestive enzymes at the start of each meal. These help you to process your food better, so your body will actually be able to absorb what you’ve eaten. You’ll be more comfortable and derive more nutritional benefit, too.
- Use probiotic supplements to help repopulate your digestive tract with beneficial bacteria.
- For people with low acid production, HCL with pepsin is a popular choice prior to each meal.
- Supplementing with magnesium, L-glutamine, and melatonin can ease the symptoms of heartburn.
Again, lifestyle choices are critical. Manage stress, seriously. Stress makes all sorts of digestive symptoms worse by increasing acid production. Make it your business to find relaxation techniques that work for you—and incorporate them into your daily living. And be mindful that other everyday choices affect your digestion, too: Exercise, but not too vigorously and not late at night. Stop smoking now and keep alcohol to a minimum—both for your digestion and for your overall best living!
Know that lifestyle changes take time to work. Be persistent but patient as you implement these adjustments, and prepare to be amazed as you feel your body’s internal inflammation ease over time. Knowledge is power—and knowing how your body works can be very empowering and healing!