If you suffer from heartburn or GERD, put down the Nexium and take control of this common painful condition naturally. Healthy Girlfriend is no stranger to the burning pain in the center of the chest that travels up into the throat; in fact it used to be a common occurence after a large meal or one that was especially spicy or oily. In those days, we popped an OTC remedy like raniditine or even took a two week course of Nexium. Those remedies did seem to work, at least in the short term. However, the problem only worsens when we consistently rely on them to control our temporary, but painful symptoms. What a shame to put this kind of poison in your body when it's not necessary! Getting to the root of the problem and correcting it naturally pays off with permanent relief or at the very least, infrequent bouts of heartburn.

The Real Cause of Heartburn

photo credit:medicinenet.com

Also known as acid reflux, the burning pain behind the breastbone that often goes up into the throat    when we lie down is actually caused by too little stomach acid. We know you've always been told heartburn is caused by excess stomach acid, but nothing could be farther than the truth. Here's why.

When we eat, our stomach expands in preparation for digestion. Cells in the stomach begin to secrete an acid called gastrin which in turn signals a release of hydrochloric acid (HCL.) Then a third necessary gastric juice, called pepsin is released. These three gastric juices are so powerful, they could digest your little toe in about 20 minutes! Fortunately, your stomach has a lining that protects it from that powerful acid. The contents of this digestive action are kept where they belong, in the stomach by two closed valves; one is the esophageal sphincter (the valve that keeps the acid from going up your esophagus) and the pyloric sphincter (the bottom valve that opens into the small intestine. When the HCL has reached requisite levels for adequate digestion, that's gastrin's cue to wind down. When the gastrin winds down, the other two acids follow suit. Except with acid reflux disease, it doesn't wind down.

So that still sounds like too much acid, right? Not when you understand what a finely-tuned course of events your intelligent body choreographs to make digestion occur. When the body can't make enough hydrochloric acid, gastrin doesn't get it's cue to wind down. Instead, it keeps pumping out harder, telling the HCL to please ramp up to get the job done. The presence of increased gastrin relaxes the esophageal sphincter allowing stomach acid to creep up into the esophagus and even up into the throat especially when we recline. When this happens regularly, it's called gastric-esophogeal reflux disease, or GERD. When the erosion of the unprotected esophogus gets bad enough, it's called Barrett's Esophogus, a pre-cancerous condition. Not good. 

While not the cause, per se, of heartburn other common triggers of acid reflux include caffeinated beverages, alcohol, citrus juices, carbonated drinks (soda and water,) spicy food, high fat foods, chocolate and even mint, which relaxes the esophageal sphinctor. Medications for anxiety, high blood pressure, antibiotics and pain relievers have heartburn as a side effect. It makes sense to limit or avoid these triggers as much as possible. Hiatal hernias are also a common condition linked to chronic heartburn.

H. Pylori infections are also related to chronic GERD, but there are many effective ways to eradicated this common bacteria which we'll discuss later.

The Problem with Proton Pump Inhibitors

The go-to remedy for chronic cases of heartburn (or indigestion, or reflux) are proton pump inhibitors such as Nexium, Prilosec, and Xantac. These drugs essentially put a halt to the production of gastrin and hydrochloric acid. Many studies show that suppressing stomach acid doesn't solve the problem. But these quick fixes for the pain of heartburn come with serious side effects. Bone loss and fractures, infection, and pneumonia are not uncommon in repeat users. 

It's interesting to note that when these drugs were first introduced, they were prescribed only for bleeding ulcers, severe acid reflux with esophageal damage, and a rare disease where stomach acid truly is overproduced. Since then, these pharmaceuticals have fallen into regular use which has led to tolerance and dependence. Digestive distress has become a vicious cycle because of the overuse of proton-pump inhibitors. Isn't it time to look to nature (or re-look after all these years) to find remedies for the discomfort while we work on addressing the root cause?

Note: If you are in acute pain, please do consider a 2 week course of this type of over-the-counter medication in addition to the natural methods we discuss on this page. There's no sense in being miserable; we just advocate non-reliance on pharmaceuticals as much as possible, especially with drugs that weren't designed for long-term use.

Natural Remedies for Relief of Heartburn

For immediate relief of the "burn" of heartburn, stir a teaspoonful of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) into a glass of water and drink. This will relieve the discomfort more quickly than anything we know and it's safer than OTC raniditine. While it will give relief, the ultimate goal here is to address the cause of your digestive problems so you don't get GERD in the first place.

Licorice  is our absolute favorite go-to remedy that not only provides quick relief of reflux but also helps heal stomach inflamation and ulcers. Licorice root comes in a chewable tablet that can be taken between meals, just before eating to coat the stomach, or when you're experiencing heartburn. It's soothing to the esophagus as well as a good preventative. Enzymatic Therapy makes a good one. We recommend the  deglycyrrhizinated (DGL) form. DGL is the type of licorice supplement that has the blood pressure-raising component of licorice removed. 

Slippery elm is an herb that relieves the pain of indigestion by soothing not only the esophagus and stomach but also the intestines. As such, it's a great remedy for inflammatory bowel disease. It supports healing by stimulating nerve endings in your gastrointestinal tract. Your body is then cued to increase mucus secretion, which is protective of your GI tract. Slippery Elm comes in several forms, but the least expensive way is to simply buy the pleasant-tasting powder and stir a teaspoon into a small glass of water. Drink it right away before it gets thick, and be sure to follow it with another glass of plain water. We would avoid the capsule form since they will go straight to the stomach and you want the herb to coat the throat and esophagus as well.

Chamomile tea will soothe any throat and gastric inflammation. It is available in bags or loose in bulk. We prefer the loose, dried flowers which are cheaper. Put a tablespoon or more in a Mason jar, pour boiling water over and let steep for 20 minutes or longer. You then have a concentrate that you can add to warm water and drink all day. It is also good chilled for iced tea in the warmer months.

Celery Juice taken every morning on an empty stomach is remarkable for reducing inflammation of the esophagus and stomach lining. If you have a juicer, just take one bunch of clean, organic celery, run it through and drink it slowly. If you don't have a juicer, use a high speed blender, like Vitamix, blend up the celery for 30 seconds and strain the fiber out before drinking. Drink it every morning first thing for as long as you have symptoms. 

Cabbage Juice can also be taken in the same way. There's even research behind ulcers and cabbage juice.

Aloe Vera Juice  Look at your health food store for a high-quality one without any additives.

Also, many people have had great results using enemas, or colon cleansing for turning around heartburn. More info on this here.

Digestive Enzymes  We take them with every cooked meal, especially if there are lots of different types of food to digest and notice the difference when we don't. 

Cascara Sagrada. Taken in low doses (capsules are fine) this tree bark cleanses and rebuilds the stomach, pancreas, liver and intestines. It works well for constipation, too.

Cut Out Problem Foods and Beverages

You probably already know what those are for you, although everyone is slightly different when it comes to these offenders. Common heartburn triggers for many people are:

  • Coffee/tea...sorry :( 
  • Alcohol
  • Cranberry Juice
  • Soda/carbonated drinks (coke, ginger ale etc.)
  • High fat foods (meat, butter, cheese, oils)
  • Hot peppers
  • Tomato Sauce (any cooked tomato product, such as V8 etc.)

Natural Ways to Increase Stomach Acid

To address the root of the problem, we need to understand why the stomach doesn't make enough Hydrochloric Acid (HCL.) From a holistic perspective, the cause of acid reflux is a lack of adequate nutrition and poor diet. The following are proven ways to correct the problem of low stomach acid so digestion improves.

  1. Salt your food. The CL in HCL stands for chloride, or salt. Low-salt diets are recommended for everyone these days, it seems, and yet they haven't corrected cardiovascular disease and only contribute to low stomach acid. Use salt without fear, but use sea salt rather than processed table salt. Sea salt, such as Himalayan Salt, is rich in a variety of 80-some minerals and salt your food until it tastes good. 
  2. Eliminate food triggers. Pay attention to what you've eaten when you get heartburn. Triggers can be perfectly healthy foods and still cause indigestion, so quit eating them at least until the stomach heals. Clean up your diet and make it a practice to eat fresh, uncooked vegetables and fruits in high quantity every day. Keep in mind that even organic produce doesn't take up all the minerals in the soil so we really need to supplement with a high quality multi vitamin/mineral formula. This is especially true if you are suffering from any illness or unhealthy condition.
  3. Eat calcium-rich foods, such as kale, broccoli, figs, almonds and oranges. We devoted an entire page to this vital nutrient as a deficiency is implicated in 200 some diseases and conditions.
  4. When you do have heartburn, use the remedies that help rebuild the GI tract in addition to providing quick relief. This would include slippery elm and licorice.
  5. Apple Cider Vinegar. The vinegar with a thousand uses (it seems!) will increase stomach acid. Take 1 tablespoon in a glass of water a half hour before meals to help digest cooked foods. Bragg's is the brand that is superior to all others because it is raw and unfiltered.

If You Have H. Pylori Bacteria

A simple breath test at the doctor's office will determine whether or not you harbor the H. Pylori bacteria responsible for most ulcers and stomach irritation. If that's the case, you'll want to employ these effective treatments to send this bacteria packing.

Fermented foods such as real sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt are great foods to be eating anyway. A good probiotic such as this one from HyperBiotics is necessary to heal and repair the digestive tract anyway, so get started on probiotic-rich food in combination with a high-quality probiotic supplement. Keep in mind that healing the stomach takes time, but six months from now you could be done with acid reflux instead of just relying on remedies for relief.

Raw ginger will block stomach acid and suppress H. Pylori. This is an ancient remedy for all kinds of stomach distress. In fact, according to Pub Med it's been found to be more effective than drugs for preventing ulcers!

Betaine. Many people with irritable bowel syndrome, Chrohn's, and other serious disorders swear by Betaine HCL. This supplement is only recommended if you don't have a history of stomach ulcers, which is why we've not tried it personally. It is reported to significantly help digest food in addition to helping the body kill the H. pylori bacteria. Do the research and see if it's something that might be indicated for your specific condition.