If you’ve ever felt it, you know heartburn is no picnic!
Pain and burning sensations fill the chest when acid from the stomach “refluxes” into the esophagus. It can be extremely uncomfortable and alarming- no wonder it’s so common to reach for fast relief.
Antacids such as Tums®, Mylanta®, Gaviscon®, and Rolaids® are easy to take, tasty and colorful, yet next time you feel the burn you might want to think twice.
Let’s first look at the mechanism of antacids in the body to know if antacids the right choice for your heartburn. The main ingredient in most antacids is calcium carbonate; used to “neutralize” stomach acid. This is helpful when the contents of an acidic stomach are neutralized as they reflux into the esophagus, but doctors have noted that neutralizing acid in this way can cause a “rebound acidification” affect. This means that although you do get immediate relief you are also more prone to unhealthy variations of stomach acid in the future as it confuses the acid-producing cells regarding how much acid to produce and when4. Good for today- but making your heartburn worse in the long-run.
What about the other ingredients? It’s easy to eat them like candy (good marketing on their part!) but many other ingredients in antacids are no treat. The original antacid contained only calcium carbonate, but the newer variations have unhealthy dyes, sugars, and artificial flavours. They may seem harmless but adding these to your diet has been shown to create inflammation, cause headaches, fatigue nausea, chest pain, dizziness, and lead to an increased risk of seizures.1 Dyes such as Yellow 5 and Red 40 have been shown to increase symptoms asthma and hyperactivity in children.2
Did you know not all heartburn is caused by having too much acid?
In fact, heartburn can be caused by having too little acid. A low pH (called hypochlorhydria) can prevent the sphincter (or valve) at the bottom of the esophagus from closing properly, leaving it open for easy reflux. Hypochlorhydria is actually more common than having too much stomach acid, affecting approximately half of people over the age of 40.3 In some cases an ND will explore stimulating the cells to make more stomach acid. This can be a better long-term solution to chronic reflux symptoms because it will keep the lower esophageal sphincter closed, and protect your esophagus.
Finally, stomach acid isn’t the bad guy! It is one of the most important immune defenses our body has. Pathogens like bacteria, parasites and viruses can enter in our food and drinks, and stomach acid is there to kill many disease-causing agents before they even get a chance to make us sick. Lowering stomach acid regularly with antacids makes us more susceptible to infection and food poisoning.
So if you feel the burn- what can you do?
The best thing to do is to discover the reason you have heartburn and eliminate it from your lifestyle. Here are some questions a Naturopathic Doctor may ask you:
- Is it from overeating, spicy or fatty foods that are not quick to digest?
- Are you eating too close to bedtime and lying down with a still-full stomach?
- Are you eating while stressed and in a rush?
These habits can increase amount and frequency of acid reflux into the throat, which is why healthier eating habits and tracking your patterns of heartburn symptoms are the first steps towards eliminating reflux.
A Naturopathic Doctor can also assess a patient’s level of stomach acid to determine whether low stomach acid or de-regulated acid production from frequent antacid use is a factor.
Typically, a Naturopathic Doctor will also use herbal treatments to stimulate the acid-producing cells of the stomach, enabling cells to return to a regular rhythm of production and sooth the inflamed and irritated mucous lining of the esophagus. Herbal treatments can also help with keeping the esophagus valve healthy and to keep closing properly. The esophagus valve health also relied on important nutrients, such as magnesium. A Naturopathic Doctor can help you determine your nutrient deficiencies and get you back on track.
Tums® and other antacids may be helpful in the short-term for reducing heartburn pain, but it is often a “band-aid” solution, and could be the cause of a much bigger problem in the long term.
- Jeff Volling, Dr. Beck Maes, 2015. https://www.isitbadforyou.com/
- Arnold, L. E., Lofthouse, N., & Hurt, E. (2012). Artificial food colors and attention-deficit/
hyperactivity symptoms: conclusions to dye for. Neurotherapeutics, 9(3), 599-609. https://www.ncbi.nlm. nih.gov/pmc/articles/ PMC3441937/
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