We have been enjoying a sunnier than usual fall, and I notice more people are outside, enjoying the warmer breezes and the colors, therefore including more movement and exercise in their daily routines. This is also a time of year with the added stress of holiday celebrations and travel that I hear from more and more people that they are experiencing heartburn, reflux. This condition is known in the medical world as GERD (Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease). Many doctors suggest that the only treatment is long-term use of acid blockers and conventional antacids. While the antacids or acid blockers are often helpful for the symptoms, they do not address the root cause of this common problem.
This is an issue that concerns many aging Americans (that’s us folks!) As you may know, medicines for stomach and upper digestive system problems are currently one of the largest selling drug categories in the world, an amount totaling billions of dollars per year. Luckily for you and many others this problem can be helped with some nutritional and lifestyle changes.
Treating GERD brings up a quandary that one often encounters in the world of medicine. That is, in many cases two diametrically opposed theories or hypotheses may be proposed, both of them often sounding perfectly valid and, of course, both of them having their vehement proponents. One example is the low fat versus low carbohydrate arguments that are raging through the dietary circles of this country, which shows how two competing theories for weight loss may, at first, sound equally valid. In many cases only the actual testing of each theory will show which is the right approach.
Regarding GERD, there are also two theories that, at first, both sound like reasonable approaches. Because everyone accepts the fact that it is stomach acid that causes the problem of burning, the question is: Is there too much acid in the stomach? One answer could be that the person is eating too much of the type of food that signals the body to secrete stomach acid, because protein rich foods will stimulate the stomach cells to produce acid. The therapy is simple: stop eating so much protein. Then the stimulus to produce acid will be lessened, less acid will be produced and eventually the symptoms will abate.
Another theory, and one that I subscribe to, suggests that producing stomach acid is a natural function of the stomach in response to the eating of food – any type of food. The acid helps the stomach and pancreatic enzymes do their work, so without stomach acid the whole digestive system is thrown off.
Furthermore, the very group of people who most often lacks stomach acid, the elderly, (and/or people with a stressful life) is a group that most often suffers from GERD. So, in this case, the solution is not to inhibit production by eating less protein, but rather to increase protein (and fat) intake as to give the acid something to do, which is to digest the protein.
A study done at Duke University examined this very question. The article was published in Alternative Therapies Nov/Dec. 2001, Vol. 7 No. 6 under the title ”Improvement of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease After Initiation of a Low-Carbohydrate Diet: Five Brief Case Reports.” In this study, the Duke researchers studied diabetic patients, often with a host of other medical problems. Furthermore, they were described as patients who had failed all other conventional therapies. In other words, these were their most refractory patients with GERD.
Much to their amazement, they reported that in spite of continuing to smoke, drink coffee and other GERD-unfriendly habits, the symptoms of GERD were completely eliminated within one week of adopting a very low-carbohydrate diet (about 20 grams per day.) The patients were able to stop all antacids and their prescription stomach medicines and this improvement continued even after they increased their carbohydrate intake to 70 grams per day.
The researchers were unable to definitively say why this had occurred, but they suggested that the lower-carbohydrate intake influenced the activity of various hormones that open and close the valve between the esophagus and the stomach.
This therapy may be particularly appropriate for those people that are diabetic, as it stabilizes the blood sugar; although, you still need to carefully monitor your blood sugar levels.
Long term use of acid blockers, and or antacids will have other negative effects such as:
■ Infiltration of harmful microorganisms to the digestive system;
■ Reduced absorption of vitamin B12 resulting in fatigue and damage to arteries;
■ Impaired digestion resulting in obesity and nutritional deficiencies.
A popular dietary supplement that supports your normal circadian rhythm, and that many rely on for sleep support, is melatonin. We produce some melatonin in our pineal gland, but we produce 400 times more of this important hormone in our digestive tract. Melatonin supports the function of the esophageal sphincter at the bottom of the esophagus, keeping acidic and irritating stomach contents from causing irritation. Studies show three to six milligrams to be effective. Try a fast acting chewable melatonin a couple of hours prior to bedtime to tune up this protective valve function.
What we eat and drink, which is different for each of us, and how we manage stress are key pieces in our individual puzzles of healthy living. Listen to your body for guidance we can only get from ourselves. For individual guidance and more information on this and other health related topics, see me for a free health coaching session.