Want to Get Rid of Heartburn Permanently? Stop Taking Antacids and PPIs.
The most common medications used to treat acid reflux only make the problem worse — this is how to relieve heartburn for good.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the truth is that heartburn is the result of too little stomach acid, not too much like most people think.
It’s the reason why many people who treat their indigestion, acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD with antacids and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) never find relief — because the treatments they’re using only exacerbate the problem and reduce stomach acid even further.
These types of maladies are easy to fix, but it requires thinking about the problem in a totally different way and treating it accordingly.
Here’s how to relieve heartburn the right way!
The Mechanics of Acid Reflux
Before I dive into how to get rid of heartburn, let’s talk a little bit about anatomy for a moment to help orient us to the issues. There’s a muscular sphincter valve that sits at the bottom of your esophagus/top of your stomach called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) — it opens and closes to keep undigested food and acid from regurgitating up into the esophagus and causing heartburn.
The LES (and all of our digestive processes) is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which is important for a couple of reasons.
Our autonomic nervous system is responsible for controlling all of the automatic functions within our bodies — things like breathing, heart rate, digestion, metabolism, etc. — and it’s broken into two parts, or divisions: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic system. The sympathetic system is responsible for activation — it’s our “fight or flight” response in reaction to a stressor or threat (or perceived stress or threat, as is often the case). The parasympathetic system does the opposite, controlling bodily functions under normal circumstances and keeping things in a more relaxed state. They work in tandem to help our bodies respond appropriately in any given situation.
When our sympathetic system is activated and we’re in fight or flight mode, digestive processes are stunted in order to send more blood to organs like the heart and lungs — which in times past, was imperative for survival. Imagine if you had a bear chasing you…it’s much more important to outrun him than digest that morning’s breakfast! In our modern day and age the average person isn’t contending with this kind of survival scenario — but our stress levels are at an all time high nonetheless. And our body doesn’t differentiate between physical, emotional, and chemical stress — stress is stress, and the sympathetic system responds the same way no matter where it’s coming from.
That means that instead of “resting and digesting” courtesy of our parasympathetic system, highly stressed people are constantly in “fight or flight” mode, which wreaks havoc on health and wellness and fuels digestive issues.
Our sympathetic and parasympathetic systems need to be in harmony, balancing one another out, in order for all of our digestive processes — including the opening and closing of our LES — to function properly.
Effective stress management techniques are essential to get rid of heartburn.
The Problem of Low Stomach Acid
As I mentioned above, having too little stomach acid, not too much, is the biggest problem.
If the level of hydrochloric acid (HCL) in our stomach — responsible for digesting food and keeping pathogens at bay — is too low, our LES doesn’t receive the message to close (it has receptors for HCL, you see, and if there’s not enough HCL in the stomach to signal those receptors the message doesn’t get through!). That means it stays open even when there’s food in the stomach, when it should be closed, allowing food and acid to escape back up into the esophagus. The official medical term for low HCL is hypochlorhydria.
Hypochlorhydria not only contributes to stomach upset and acid reflux, it hinders digestion and the absorption of vital nutrients and can damage the gut and affect the body’s ability to function properly.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can result from low HCL, as can the inability to properly utilize electrolytes. Low HCL also contributes to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), since HCL is needed in the small intestine, too, to continue digestion and keep bacteria and other pathogens at bay (these microbes can’t multiply in a highly acidic environment, but they take advantage of the low acid and proliferate). Not having enough HCL to properly digest food and proteins leads to inflammation as well, which can progress to leaky gut, food sensitivities, and even autoimmune disease!
What Causes Low HCL?
The biggest culprit of low HCL that I’ve seen is inadequate salt intake — and I’m talking about healthy sea salt or pink Himalayan salt, not over-processed table salt. Sodium chloride is really helpful for someone with low HCL. In addition to having a low sodium level, low levels of other electrolytes, especially calcium, may be to blame as they play an important role in proper muscle contraction. Low calcium levels specifically are often directly related to low Vitamin D levels, as Vitamin D is responsible for calcium’s absorption. Traditional clinical reference ranges declare a Vitamin D level over 30 ng/mL sufficient, but in functional medicine we want to see that number between 60–80 ng/mL.
The other big offender is overuse of antacids and proton pump inhibitors (or PPIs, like Prevacid, Prilosec, and the like) that reduce the amount of acid in the stomach as their mechanism of action. No one should be on these types of drugs long term, yet I regularly see people who have been on them for years. That’s a huge problem!
The following foods and drinks — all common to the Standard American Diet — also lower HCL:
- Grains that contain gluten
- Excess sugar and alcohol
- Unhealthy fats, like corn or vegetable oils
- Processed foods
And, as I mentioned above, chronic stress is a contributing factor as well.
I think it’s pretty clear by now that low stomach acid is a big problem, but how can we fix it?
Tips to Increase Stomach Acid
The fixes for this problem are easy, now that we understand the underlying root causes. Without further ado, here’s how to relieve heartburn fast:
- First up, let’s discuss the foods that help acid reflux. You’ll want to switch to a whole food diet heavy in vegetables and fruits, high quality protein, and healthy fats (choosing organic whenever possible), and eliminate processed foods and sugar. Then, start supplementing with Betaine HCL and apple cider vinegar before meals. Betaine HCL is hydrochloric acid, so you’re literally adding more HCL to your stomach when you take this supplement. Some people need anywhere from 4–8 capsules in the beginning to make a difference, but start with just two capsules to see how you respond and build up from there! Add one tablespoon of the apple cider vinegar to a glass of water and drink that before a meal as well for even more benefit.
***If you experience pain when taking the Betaine or apple cider vinegar, you likely have gastritis (i.e. stomach inflammation) or an ulcer — you’ll need to deal with these things first, then return to working on normalizing HCL levels. Try things like slippery elm, chlorophyll, or pure aloe vera to calm the stomach and reduce inflammation. Cabbage or cabbage juice is also excellent for people with a history of ulcers or gastritis, as is raw sauerkraut and bone broth. L-glutamine powder (1,000 mg in a glass of water 3 to 4 times a day) can also be helpful to heal the lining of your gut.
- Start exercising to reduce stress, and find other effective stress management techniques to employ.
- Expose your skin directly to sunlight for 15–20 minutes every day if possible to increase Vitamin D levels, or use supplements in the winter to increase your levels. If your blood level is currently under 30 ng/mL I recommend 10,000 iU’s a day for a while to get that number up (that’s the equivalent of 20 minutes in direct sunlight without sunscreen). If you’re in the high 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s, try 5,000 units a day to get to a blood level of 60–80 ng/mL. Be sure to get tested periodically so you know where you’re at!
- Supplement with zinc-L-carnosine, 50–100 mg a day for a month or two. You don’t want to take high doses of zinc long term, but for a short time it’s not a problem.
- Utilize a rotation of probiotics — preferably soil based organisms — to re-establish a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. Use different probiotics every month or so to avoid over supplementing with the same strains. Eat prebiotic foods to give the healthy bacteria “fuel” as well, things like garlic, leeks, onions, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts, for example.
- Implement intermittent fasting into your lifestyle to give your gut a break! You can start with a 12-hour eating window then shorten that down to around 6 or 8 for maximum benefit. Other fasting styles would be beneficial as well, including partial and water fasting.
Start implementing these fixes into your lifestyle and I’m confident you’ll notice a difference in how you’re feeling almost immediately. It’s time to stop suffering needlessly and live that healthy, vibrant life you deserve!