Who Turned Up the Heat? What Causes Acid Reflux and Heartburn?
The holidays are a time of festiveness, fun, food and family. If you or someone you know has been dealing with acid reflux, then you also know that the holidays can be a bit of a drag.
Here you are at the office party, you favorite deviled eggs on the tray, but you walk right by. Chips and salsa? Might be too much tomato. Same goes with Grandma’s mostaccioli. And It used to just be Uncle Bob’s super spicy chili that was off limits, but these days it seems like anything, including the eggnog, might have you up all night with that burning, choking acid feeling in your chest.
Acid reflux, commonly known as heartburn and medically known as GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease) often starts really small, so it is easy to ignore. It happens just a few times per year, robbing you of sleep, but then is gone for weeks and you forget about it or just pass it off as a random thing. However, if the reasons that your body has started to have acid reflux aren’t addressed, this condition typically just gets worse and worse until you’re worrying about almost everything you eat, buying special pillows to prop up at night, and taking different medications to see what might help.
Finding out WHY your body is regurgitating stomach acid up into your esophagus is the first major step to relieving yourself of the condition and getting your body back on track. While most people think about eliminating their GERD simply not to feel like garbage after a meal, there are a few other really good health reasons to address your acid reflux ASAP.
One reason is that constant acid presence in the esophagus is not something it is designed to handle. Longer term this can lead to erosion of the lining of the esophagus which has been linked to certain cancers.
Another reason is that GERD can often be associated with gastritis and ulcers (we’ll talk more about this when we discuss causes), which decreases your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Hopefully we don’t need to go into why this would be a big issue!
So what causes acid reflux?
1. Low Stomach Acid –There are many different reasons why low stomach acid can lead to acid reflux, even though it seems like an oxymoron. Here’s the rub:
So first let’s talk sphincters. At the top of your stomach, you have a sphincter called the LES (lower esophageal sphincter) that is generally supposed to close down once food is in the stomach to prevent the contents from regurgitating back up into the esophagus. The LES is designed to remain closed when the acidic contents of the stomach reach a certain level. If this level is never reached due to low stomach acid then the LES may not close appropriately, leading to reflux. Your functional medicine doctor can help improve the acidity level in your stomach, allowing your LES to close and eliminating your reflux symptoms.
The second reason that lower stomach acid leads to heartburn is due to bacterial imbalance. Studies show that when you have too little acid in your stomach it can quickly get taken over (along with the small intestine) by bacteria coming up from the colon. This bacteria, while healthy in the colon, causes overgrowth issues and imbalance that lead to a number of digestive symptoms, heartburn being one of them. When bacterial overgrowth is found to be the cause, your functional medicine doctor will help you figure out the best antibacterial supplements and dietary changes to get things back under control and get you feeling better.
The last thing to look at is the enzymes. Along with our stomach acid, we also have digestive enzymes in the stomach to help break down food. Generally when the stomach has a lower production of acid, it is a problem with the health of the stomach also causing a reduction in the enzymes. Not having these enzymes leads to further indigestion and stomach/bowel problems. This is also something your functional medicine doctor can help you address.
2. Hiatal Hernia – This condition is a structural issue. To avoid an anatomy lesson, this basically means that your stomach is coming up through your diaphragm causing the contents to be pushed up through the LES. Your stomach sits just below your diaphragm, which has a tiny opening though it just for the esophagus. Or at least it’s supposed to be a tiny opening. When someone has a hiatal hernia, what it means is that they have a larger than normal opening in the diaphragm. This allows the stomach to ride up into the opening, which then causes acid to back up into the esophagus much more easily than if it were properly positioned. While a severe hiatal hernia requires surgical intervention, your functional medicine chiropractor can do a lot to help with milder cases.
3. Poor diet – A SAD (Standard American Diet, yes, it’s really called that and I think it’s darn appropriate!) way of eating can lead to many digestive disorders. The inflammatory nature of many of our processed foods can lead to bacterial imbalances not only in our intestines but even in our stomach, where they shouldn’t be. Bacteria such as H. Pylori have been linked to gastritis and low stomach acid, and therefor can be attributed to acid reflux.
If you think is sounds like you’d have to get a lot of testing done to figure out what is causing your nightly heartburn, then you’d be right. Sort of. You see, in the typical western medicine method you’d probably be put on medication for your symptoms first.
Then, you might be put through a battery of tests to check on esophageal damage and such. It would be unlikely that you would be able to find the root cause of your reflux by going this route, and many of you might have already been through this.
The crazy thing is, there are doctors out there who can help you figure out your root causes with a few simple tests and get you back on track within weeks in most cases. These types of doctors are known as functional medicine doctors and they are trained to look for causes of body dysfunction instead of masking symptoms. Many of these doctors are also chiropractors and have been trained in looking at the body in a different way than you might have been treated thus far. Need more info? We’d love to hear from you!
Dr. Caroline Ricker has been passionately helping people avoid unnecessary medications and surgeries since 2009. She combines a very logical functional medicine approach to digestive disorders and more using a more alternative holistic approach, utilizing standard lab tests and in-office evaluations as well as nutrition, acupuncture and homeopathy.
Whole Health & Wellness
10807 Big Bend Road
St. Louis, MO 63122
P: (314) 269-3847