HeartburnHeartburn is caused by too little stomach acid!!!

Here’s an interesting fact that on the surface seems counterintuitive. Did you know that most heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is caused by too little, not too much, stomach acid? That doesn’t quite make sense does it? If that’s true, then how come antacids take away heartburn?

Studies have shown that the incidence of heartburn and GERD increases with age. Studies have also proven that stomach acid levels decline with age. If too much stomach acid causes heartburn, then how can this be?

Using antacids for heartburn – the traditional (but wrong) fix

The notion that heartburn is caused by too much stomach acid is firmly entrenched in the lay public and the medical community. The theory is that this problem has two causes. First, it is thought of the stomach makes too much acid. Second, it’s felt that the muscular valve which separates the esophagus from the stomach is somehow defective, allowing all of the stomach acid to reflux back into the esophagus. The remedy has been to do our best to lower stomach acid secretion is low as possible with antacids. Unfortunately this does not “cure” the problem. When antacid drugs were first introduced it was recommended that they not be taken for more than six weeks. However, today it is not uncommon to see people remain on these drugs for decades. They don’t cure the problem….they merely treat the symptom.

Treasure your stomach acid

Is there a problem with turning off our stomach acid? Absolutely! A highly acidic stomach is essential for several critical biological functions to occur. One of the chief roles of stomach acid is to inhibit bacterial growth. At a pH of 3 or less, most bacteria can survive for more than 15 minutes. When the pH rises above five (which means there is less acid in the stomach) potentially harmful bacteria from the outside world are no longer neutralized.

If your stomach acid is too low, you can’t properly begin the digestive process. The unprocessed food is dumped into your intestines. As food leaves the stomach and enters the small intestine, stomach acid sends a signal to the pancreas to secrete enzymes to help break down protein and carbohydrate. With low stomach acid this doesn’t happen and we get further indigestion of carbohydrate, protein and fat.

When stomach acid is adequate and carbohydrates are consumed in moderation, they are broken down into glucose and rapidly absorbed in the small intestine. When undigested carbohydrates reach the intestines they are consumed (fermented) by bacteria producing gas. Excess gas causes increased intra-abdominal pressure and bloating which pushes stomach contents into the lower esophagus. This ready availability of increased undigested carbohydrates (bacteria’s favorite food) encourage bacterial overgrowth.

Bacterial overgrowth

Bacterial overgrowth can result in decreased nutrient absorption-particularly iron, B-12, zinc, calcium and folate. Bacterial overgrowth can also cause the intestines to become too permeable, allowing undigested particles to ooze into the circulation that don’t normally belong there. This “leaky gut” activates the immune system because these particles are perceived as foreign invaders. An active immune system leads to inflammation, chronic disease and other autoimmune diseases.

How antacids ‘seem’ to work

The lower esophagus is not designed to tolerate any acid at all. The symptoms of heartburn and GERD occur when ANY acid touches its delicate lining. This is where antacids work. They decreased the amount of acid in the stomach that can reflux back into the esophagus. But turning off the acid isn’t the solution. Treating the symptom doesn’t mean that you have appropriately address the cause. Optimizing digestion and preventing incomplete digestion and downstream bacterial overgrowth is the goal.

Heartburn treatment

So the proper treatment for heartburn and GERD is to restore adequate stomach acid and eliminate bacterial overgrowth.

Replacing stomach acid in the form of acid supplements or apple cider vinegar will help improve digestion in the stomach and intestines in the long term for most people (trust me….it works). Adding digestive enzymes as well as a good probiotic are also very important.