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Soothing heartburn naturally
In last week’s post we described the real cause of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and explored why conventional strategies for managing the condition can come with negative health risks over time.
Today we’ll take a look at some simple, natural, remedies for alleviating reflux at its root cause, primarily by (1) strengthening the tone of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) muscle, which separates the esophagus from the stomach, and (2) soothing and coating the cells of the esophagus.
Chew your food
Reflux is more likely to occur when we’ve eaten quickly, when we don’t chew our food properly, and when our bodies are in the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” mode instead of the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” mode.
Simple ways to prepare our bodies for digestion include practices collectively known as “food hygiene.”
Get the most out of your body’s digestion by following these simple guidelines:
- Eat meals sitting down, in a relaxed atmosphere. Do not drive, watch TV, play on your computer/smartphone, or multitask while eating.
- Before eating, say a prayer or take 3 deep breaths to help you slow down.
- Chew your food well before swallowing. A good goal is 32 chews, so the food is liquid before you swallow it. This technique also gives your brain time to register the “full” signal, so chewing your food well may actually help you eat less, feel full longer, and keep a trim waistline. Chewing your food also coats the food particles with saliva, and the digestive enzymes found within it. This starts the digestion of food before you’ve even swallowed, reducing workload for the stomach.
Avoid substances that decrease LES tone
Recalling that reflux is caused by a “flabby” lower esophageal sphincter (LES), remedying the condition includes avoiding foods and substances that can further relax the muscle. To remember this list of foods, the acronym SCRAP – for scrap the junk! – can be helpful:
- S – spicy foods, sodas
- C – coffee, chocolate, caffeine, cigarettes
- R – refined carbohydrates like pasta, bread, pastries, and cookies
- A – alcohol, food allergies/intolerances (Working with a naturopathic doctor or other functional medicine provider can help identify your intolerances.)
- P – peppermint* and mint-flavored foods
Fun fact: In some cultures where it’s considered polite to burp after a meal, folks eat something minty to relax the LES, making it easier to burp and compliment the chef.
Herbs and foods that increase stomach acid
While it may seem counter-intuitive to increase hydrochloric acid levels in a condition associated with acid burning the cells of the esophagus, enhancing the acidity of the stomach can actually strengthen LES tone. In turn, this ensures that the “door” between the stomach and the lower esophagus stays closed, preventing reflux and improving digestive integrity.
Natural remedies to increase stomach acidity and strengthen LES tone at mealtime include:
- Take herbal bitters like Gentiana lutea (gentian) and Scutellaria laterifolia (skullcap).
- Drink lemon juice diluted in a small amount of water.
- Drink one fourth of a teaspoon of (preferably raw) apple cider vinegar diluted in water before meals.
- Chew on a little piece (about the size of a silver dollar) of raw kale, chard, or dandelion.
- Avoid drinking water with meals. Too much water at mealtime can dilute stomach acid and digestive enzymes.
- Really stubborn cases of GERD can respond well to betaine hydrochloride supplements – but that’s best discussed with your naturopathic physician or other functional medicine specialist.
Soothing acute heartburn symptoms
Mucilaginous (or “slippery”) herbs can soothe the irritated esophagus and form a temporary coat to protect the lower esophagus from being burned by refluxing stomach acid.
Some commonly-appreciated remedies for soothing and coating the esophagus include:
- Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) tablets chewed between meals, or as needed for acute heartburn symptoms. (Note: The DGL form of licorice does not typically raise blood pressure, as other forms may.)
- Althaea (marshmallow) tea: Steep 1 tablespoon of dry herb to 1 cup of hot water, and drink hot or cold between meals or as needed for reflux burning. (Note: this is marshmallow, not campfire marshmallow! No camp songs required for this remedy.)
- Aloe vera juice drank throughout the day, or as needed for reflux symptoms.
Balance your hormones
High levels of progesterone and/or low levels of estrogen can cause or exacerbate reflux in women. Consider getting your levels checked and working with your doctor to balance your hormones as needed.
Treat hiatal hernia syndrome
If your symptoms are longstanding, it’s possible that the top of your stomach is pressing into the bottom of your diaphragm, causing what’s called a hiatal hernia syndrome. This can exacerbate reflux symptoms and make reflux harder to treat.
Many osteopaths, chiropractors, naturopathic doctors, and other mind-body practitioners can perform a technique known as visceral manipulation. This non-invasive massage can help release the fascia around the stomach, allowing it to drop away from the diaphragm.
Consult your doctor
As with many conditions, persistent reflux can sometimes be a sign of a more serious health condition. If your symptoms persist, be sure to consult with your healthcare provider.
ReferencesClick here to see References
Tilgner SM. Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth. DeskFul, 2009. ISBN 10: 1881517039
Nagel G. 2012. Demulcent Herbs. Botanical Medicine. National University of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon.
Sandberg-Lewis S. 2012. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Gastroenterology. National University of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon.
Sandberg-Lewis S. 2012. Hiatal Hernia Syndrome. Gastroenterology Lab. National University of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon.
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Dr. Erica Zelfand
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