Acid reflux is a common and distressing complaint that my clients often need help with. As many as 20 percent of Europe’s population is estimated to suffer from acid reflux – that is 112 million people in Europe alone. In 2019 over 60 million doses of the two most common drugs known as proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) were prescribed.
What is acid reflux ?
Acid reflux occurs when the muscle at the bottom of the oesophagus is weakened and acid from the stomach leaks into the oesophagus. This often causes a burning sensation known as acid reflux or heart burn. Overtime this can lead to erosion of the mucus membranes lining the oesophagus. This is often indicated by a ‘lump in the throat’ sensation and accompanied by a frequent need to cough. Left to progress this can develop into the more serious conditions such as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) or Barrett’s oesophagus where the lining of the oesophagus is damaged. Asymptomatic reflux can also occur during the night. Where damage is caused during sleep this is known as ‘silent reflux’ and if this travels as far as the throat or voice box it can develops into laryngopharyngeal reflux.
Acid reflux symptoms
PPI medication also known as antacids such as omeprazole and iansoprazole reduce the acidity of the stomach by up to 90%. This helps to reduce the damage caused by the stomach acid leaking into inappropriate areas and can ease uncomfortable symptoms.
The problem with this option is the medications have long-term health implications and are only intended for temporary use. Unfortunately patients rarely understand this and most are unlikely to discontinue or reduce their dosage.
Why we need stomach acid
Stomach acid performs a vital role in the digestive process. It activates pepsin for protein digestion and intrinsic factor for B12 absorption. It is responsible for closing the lower oesophageal sphincter (LES) and preventing the backflow of stomach acid into the oesophagus. The stomach is supposed to have a pH of 1.5 and this acidity sterilises our food destroying various bacteria and pathogens. It also triggers the pyloric sphincter at the bottom of the stomach to open for the next stage of our digestion.
Without this acidity we can get an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. The alteration in pH reduces stimulation of bile and digestive enzymes which can lead to nutrient depletion especially B12 and magnesium. In addition the presence of bacteria in the wrong location can cause gas to build up. This can exert pressure on the LES which can open at unwanted times causing acid leakage into unprotected areas which then develop tissue damage.
Problems with medication and low levels of stomach acid
Acid suppression can help with immediate symptom relief but the effects on slowing digestion can cause many undesirable side effects such as: nausea; vomiting; diarrhoea or constipation; abdominal pain; bloating; headaches and fatigue. Low acidity can induce dysbiosis and small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) largely due to diminished digestion and delayed emptying of the stomach. This bacteria can also colonise and translocate to the lungs via aspiration hence the risk of pneumonia rises with PPI use. There is also an increased risk of gastric infection and fracture risk. The mechanism for the latter isn’t confirmed but is thought to involve malabsorption of nutrients.
Sometimes simple diet and lifestyle changes are all that is required. These might include losing weight, avoiding eating just before sleep or avoiding key food triggers such as alcohol, caffeine, spices and chocolate. However the picture can become quite complicated as it often involves weak diaphragm muscles and hiatus hernia complications.
In functional medicine and nutrition we are always looking for the root cause of health problems and acid reflux is no exception. There are many steps which can be taken to improve digestion and alleviate symptoms of acid reflux.
Often clients require extra nutritional support and specific supplements as well as guidance to re-establish good digestion before they reduce their medication under medical supervision. Breathwork and certain exercises can help to retrain and strengthen the diaphragm. It is difficult to exercise the diaphragm without specialist guidance as this muscle only kicks in during anaerobic exercise which can’t be sustained for long. Breathwork has the added advantage of improving vagal tone which strengthens the rest and digest or parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (PNS). Our busy modern lives have taken a significant toll on our PNS with ‘grab and go’ lunches and chronic high stress levels.
So if you would like some nutrition and lifestyle support to help get to the bottom of your acid reflux, or to discuss working with me on any other issue please get in touch for a free discovery call 07740 876233. I would love to help you.
Holzer, P. (2007) Acid sensing in the gastrointestinal tract; American Journal of Physiology Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology 292(3): G699-G705 doi: 10.1152/ajpgi.00517.2006
Eom, C-S. et al. (2011) Use of acid-suppressive drugs and risk of pneumonia: a systematic review and meta-anlaysis. Canadian Medical Association Journal; 183(3) pp.310-319. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.092129
Cai, D., Feng, W. and Jiang, Q. (2015) Acid-suppressive medications and risk of fracture: an updated meta-analysis. International Journal of Clinical Experimental Medicine; 8(6); pp. 8893-8904. PMID: 26309543