Today’s episode is going to surprise many of you. Why? Because more likely than not, you will learn that the true cause of heart burn or reflux (known specifically as GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease) is the exact opposite of what your doctor has told you is the cause. Not surprising, you will learn that the true cause of heart burn is also the exact opposite of what countless of drug commercials are telling you is the cause.
The reality is, most heartburn is caused by a LACK of proper digestive enzymes and more specifically a LACK of hydrochloric acid. Wow, so I’m sure you are asking, how can that possibly be the case when antacids such as tums or antacid medications makes the SYMPTOMS of heart burn go away? Well, the answer will become crystal clear when we take a BIG step back and look at how digestion actually works.
Proper digestion works like this: As soon as we begin eating and chewing food the first stage of digestion begins by mechanically breaking down food as we chew and the salivary amylase is the first digestive enzyme to be secreted into our mouths from the parotid and salivary glands. These enzymes primary begin to moisten the food and break down any carbohydrates found in the food.
From here the food is swallowed and of course transported to our stomach via the esophagus. Once in the stomach the food is further churned by muscular contractions of the stomach wall. The next step is the biggie: The parietal cells in the stomach should begin to secrete intrinsic factor AND the extremely acid hydrochloric acid (HCL). Now this HCL is of a ph of 1.0, again extremely acidic! HCL does a number of extremely important things.
#1: HCL responsible for protein digestion, by activating the key enzyme Pepsin. Pepsin only works in an acid environment.
#2: HCL helps to prevent harmful bacteria that accompanied our food from entering our system
#3: HCL is necessary for proper mineral absorption. Remember this point folks, minerals can only be properly absorbed in an ACIDIC environment.. more on this later.
#4: The friendly bacteria in our intestines are ACID Loving. They do not produce gas, by the way, and those bacteria do a lot of important things for us. For example; did you know that the healthy bacteria in our gut actually produce a number of vitamin complexes that we need for optimal health, they also convert a number of vitamin and mineral complexes into usable or bioavailable forms.
Finally and perhaps most important in regards to today’s discussion AND one of the facts most likely either not known by your doctor or forgotten by your doctor;
#5: HCL is the molecule that triggers the trap door on the top of the stomach, known as the cardiac sphincter to CLOSE, which is the major way that our body PREVENTS heartburn or reflux from occurring in the first place.
Now what regulates our digestive process? I will give you a hint. The answer is in our very first episode. Now do you know? The answer is; our Nervous system. Our Nervous system is the master control system of our entire body. Therefore it is also responsible for digestive system function. The autonomic system or what I like to call the automatic system is the subconscious part of our nervous system that runs all of the bodily systems and it is divided into two parts.
Part 1: The fight or flight or Sympathetic nervous system and
Part 2: The rest & relaxation or Parasympathetic nervous system.
Now these two systems have opposite functions, so it is like a light switch, they cannot really be on at the same time. The best of examples of each of these systems are as follows:
For the Sympathetic system, think of when you have been driving a car and someone pulls right out in front of you and in that very moment you think you are about to crash. Think of how quickly, in a matter of seconds, your heart rate sky rockets, it feels like you heart is about to jump out of your chest, you’re breathing so hard you can barely catch your breath. That is an example of full blown sympathetic nervous system activation. What is happening from a physiological standpoint: Your blood pressure and heart rate quickly rise, blood is shunted to the brain and major muscles, now very important here, digestion is shut down, virtually comes to a HALT. This is why many of us have felt nauseated or have even thrown up under severe acute stress. Basically your brain (MC of your entire body) is trying to figure out what, A: what is chasing you and B: how to run from it.
Now for the opposite; The best example of parasympathetic stimulation is, what we will call the food coma, after that thanksgiving meal, where we are sitting on the couch, watching the football game, dozing in and out sleep…right? What is going on physiologically here is that blood pressure and heart rate drop, blood goes to the gut for DIGESTION, absorption, repair & regeneration.
Now, both systems are important, and both have a role. During our day when working out or doing challenging bouts of work either physically or mentally, it is okay to have some time of sympathetic stimulation. In between those challenging time and especially after eating and of course at night when we should be at REST, our parasympathetic system should be the dominate system.
In general we should not be running from a bear, more that we are resting and recovering. However, the REALITY IS: Most of us, particularly in the US are WAY OVERSTRESSED, working 40+hr weeks, only 2 weeks of vacation on average. Think about it. Money, relationships (partners, families, friends), work, training the list goes on and on. Pressure to keep up with the joneses right???
When we are over stressed proper digestion does not occur. Our digestive enzyme production drops significantly! So what happens when we are eating food and are digestive system is not working well? Here is the overview: Food normally stays in the stomach for 1-2 hours. Folks it’s on average 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit in our body. Now, luckily in Maine we have very few days over 90 degrees, but just imagine what would happen if it were 98 degrees outside, you took a meal, put it into a blender then poured it out onto the hot concrete and came back two hours later, gross right!? When food sits in our stomach and is NOT properly broken down, the food literally starts to ROT and FERMENT. Gasses are produced and here is the kicker folks; inorganic acids are formed, which are not normal, those acids combined with the gasses being produced are what brings that rotting, acidic food up into the esophagus, now remember without proper HCL production the trap door (cardiac sphincter) is OPEN and that is the underlying cause of the burning pain associated with heartburn & reflux.
Now, this explains why TUMS and antacid drugs help cover the symptoms by neutralizing this abnormal acid, however, there is a catch and it is a Huge Catch, these drugs do NOTHING to correct the underlying problem which is improper digestion. What’s worse is that the non-broken down food then moves into the intestines where it cannot nourish the healthy bacteria in our gut, this in turn, allows harmful bacteria along with other harmful organisms such as yeasts (candida) to begin growing and then proliferate in our gut which often produces excessive gas, bloating and can lead to a breakdown of the intestinal barrier which by the way is a root cause of malabsorption issues including leaky gut syndrome.
Now remember when we talked about HCL production being required for proper mineral absorption? Relying on antacid drugs to cover the symptoms of heartburn and reflux comes with the GREAT cost creating mineral deficiencies by literally blocking the absorption of minerals. What are minerals used for in our bodies? Wow, we could literally spend hours talking about the literal countless uses for minerals in our bodies, heck every one of our 70 trillion cells needs minerals but what about the most obvious… what about our bone health? Did you know that healthy bone is composed of over a dozen minerals (far more than just calcium). Now that you know how damaging antacid drugs can be for our bodies and especially for our bones, it should come as no surprise that study after study has shown those taking antacid drugs get this…have a much greater incidence of Bone Fractures! These studies first began appearing in the early 2000’s and in 2011 a study was published in The American Journal of Medicine that reviewed 11 OTHER international studies that showed increased risks of hip fractures, spine fractures and, get this, “any-where” bone fractures in those people taking antacid drugs for 5 years or longer! What is so sad is that despite this information, countless people are still taking these drugs simply because they and their doctors do know of any other solutions.
For anyone that understands the physiology behind proper digestion, the use of these drugs should NEVER have made any sense in the first place. So, what then is the alternative? Perhaps we should look at how heartburn and reflux were treated long before antacids drugs were even on the market?
The answer back then was actually quite simple, so simple you may be surprised. One of the longest and most successful treatments was and IS using apple cider vinegar to PROMOTE the normal digestive process. This involves having a person with heartburn add two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar to 6-8 ounces of tea. The person then sips the tea throughout the meal. The acetic acid in the vinegar then stimulates the cardiac sphincter to close, while also providing the proper acidity needed to active the enzyme pepsin, and create the acidity needed to properly absorb the minerals. This method, was literally used world-wide with fantastic results. In fact, there are books written about the science behind how this works, perhaps the most famous is; Folk Medicine by D.C. Jarvis, MD, a family physician in Vermont that wrote extensively on the science behind many of the home remedies that his patients shared with him. Another treatment option that I have used with literally hundreds of nutrition patients in my clinic, and is also extremely successful are whole food concentrates of bovine HCL. This is a great option for those that cannot tolerate apple cider vinegar or have extremely weak HCL production (often those under the most stress) taking 1-2 tablets with each meal will, in a majority of cases, correct heart burn in a number of days.
Now you might be asking; If such simple treatments are so effective why aren’t they used by all doctors today? This an excellent question, and the answer should come as no surprise. You cannot patent apple cider vinegar and you cannot patent bovine hydrochloric acid. Both have been around long before any corporation so the sad reality there is no real money to be made pitching these remedies. Now, there is money, real money to be made by drug companies convincing the public through commercials virtually everywhere you look that your heartburn is from too much acid and if you just take our pills forever, you cannot worry about stress, keeping eating what you are eating and you will FEEL just fine (minus bone fractures of course). The other sad reality is that drug companies are intimately associated with our medical schools, they sponsor continuing education seminars for the doctors and these companies even fund most of the research being published in the medical journals. With the pharmaceutical companies so involved with the education of our medical doctors this almost guarantees that natural remedies will not be taught at any point in time to our medical doctors.
Our discussion is not complete without talking about two other significant points. #1. There are three chemical that can block the cardiac sphincter (stomach’s trap door) from closing properly. They are nicotine, alcohol and caffeine. If you or any one that you know is suffering from heart burn or reflux it is imperative that they either eliminate or greatly reduce ingesting these substances for at least 2 to 3 months in attempt to help restore normal digestive function. #2. This is the elephant in the room. Stress. If stress is involved and as you now know, likely is, you MUST do something to mitigate your stress. The good news here is that there are many options that are simple and effective. For example; daily meditation, prayer, yoga style belly breathing. Receiving deep tissue work and using a sauna are just a few examples. We can dig into that on later episodes.
Lastly, Think about this. For those of you on antacid drugs has any one that prescribed these drugs ever talked about managing stress, did they discuss the three major chemicals that interfere with the cardiac sphincter’s ability to work properly? My guess is not likely and I only can say that because I ask my patients all the time if they have ever discussed such things in the past and 99.9% of the time no one has.
There you have it folks I hope this discussion was helpful in uncovering the true cause of heart burn, reflux, GERD. If you are anyone you know is dealing with these issues seek help from a qualified medical professional such as a chiropractic doctor, naturopathic doctor or functional medicine doctor. There are certain individuals who cannot tolerate the natural remedies at first, these are folks that often have an active ulcer. They will need such natural remedies but first they need to properly heal the ulcerated tissue, therefore do not go at this alone.
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