By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Medicine
My husband has always suffered from bouts of heartburn – that burning sensation that ignites itself directly under your ribcage. And when we first met, he was practically living on antacids. Little wonder – like most single guys, Bob’s diet consisted primarily of fast food, take-out and pizza.
Since we’ve been married, I’ve managed to revise his diet – and the antacids are a thing of the past. But heartburn still plagues my husband on occasion. And that’s when we reach for the herbs.
Understanding the Mechanics
When the schincter muscle at the end of your esophagus (the tube between your throat and your stomach) doesn’t stay closed, the stomach’s acidic contents can back up. When this happens, the escaping acid can initiate a fiery, painful feeling in your chest.
This acid backflow can actually fight gravity and rise up into the back of your throat, causing you to cough or even gag. And that searing pain? Unlike your stomach, which has a protective lining that keeps hydrochloric acid from burning through, your esophagus and throat don’t have any protection against this corrosive acid.
All of this happens because the muscular ring that closes off the stomach’s contents can stay partially open as a result of an injury or diseases – or simply by straining, bending over, eating a large meal or eating too fast. And if you are overweight, smoke, eat lots of fatty and sweet foods, or drink caffeine or alcohol on a regular basis . . . well, you get the idea.
The Color Purple
Over-the-counter antacids do work – temporarily. But if you pop them too often, they can irritate the stomach, prevent proper digestion and destroy friendly bacteria in the colon. Antacids can also mask symptoms of an ulcer or exacerbate a problem of low acid production.
But if you suffer from long-term heartburn, you may have been tempted by the advertisements for Prilosec or Nexium. Not only has the pharmaceutical industry given heartburn a new name –GastroEsophageal Reflux Disease or GERD for short – these ingenious 30-second spots may have convinced you that drugs are the only solution.
But these ulcer drugs (yes, they were originally created to treat ulcers) can hide the symptoms of stomach cancer. They also come with a slew of side effects rarely mentioned in the commercials. Common problems include abdominal pain, diarrhea, headache, nausea and vomiting. And those are just the everyday side effects. The list of more serious side effects is incredibly long and includes such things as aggression, chest pain, hallucinations, changes in liver function and tremors.
Oh, and did I mention that long-term use of these drugs can cause severe stomach inflammation. This is truly a case of the cure being worse than the disease.
Relief is at Hand
So what are your alternatives? First, try to find out what triggers your heartburn. Is it spicy foods? Soft drinks? Maybe you’re just wolfing down your food. If you can pinpoint the cause, you may be able to significantly reduce how often you are afflicted.
Carminative herbs can also help by exerting a therapeutic action on the esophageal sphincter muscle. And DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice) is one of the best. Studies show that this form of licorice can actually protect the stomach from acid damage – an action that helps reduce the risk of heartburn and gastric ulcers. In fact, in one study, DGL proved as effective as Tagamet in preventing duodenal ulcers. Several other studies show that licorice has antispasmodic properties and can reduce stomach acid, thereby reducing heartburn.
The suggested amount of DGL is one or two tablets (250–500 mg. per tablet), chewed and swallowed 15 minutes before meals and one to two hours before bedtime. They also work once heartburn has taken hold.
You may also be able to head heartburn off at the pass with papaya. This tropical fruit is loaded with papain, a natural digestive enzyme used for generations to prevent indigestion. Use them like you would DGL – 10 to 15 minutes before eating.
One Last Thing …
If these tactics still don’t relieve your heartburn, you may be suffering form a lack of hydrochloric acid. Oddly enough, heartburn can be caused by too little acid instead of too much. Since stomach acid normally provides a barrier against bacteria, fungi, and other organisms in food and water, people with inadequate stomach acidity may be at risk of having “unfriendly” microorganisms colonize their intestinal tract. Adding more acidic foods to your diet can normalize the acid content and may relieve your heartburn. But for long-term relief, it’s also important to restore the friendly bacteria with probiotics.
But if your heartburn lasts longer than a day or if you have black bloody stools, see your doctor. Chronic heartburn (or GERD if you prefer) may be a sign of esophageal cancer.
This Just In …
Want to live longer? Exercise!
That was the conclusion of researchers at the Royal Bromptom Hospital in London after they reviewed nine clinical trials that included 801 stable heart failure patients. Exercise training was undertaken by 395 of the participants, while the other 406 subjects acted as controls. After analyzing the data, the researchers found that hospital admission was significantly lower in the patients who exercised than in those who didn’t.
Perhaps more important was their conclusion that exercise can boost the odds of survival and that properly supervised exercise programs for patients with CHF are safe. So talk with your doctor about an appropriate exercise routine like walking or water aerobics and start exercising now.
Maxton DG, et al. “Controlled trial of pyrogastrone and cimetidine in the treatment of reflux oesophagitis.” Gut 1990;31:351–4.
Piepoli M, et al. “Exercise training meta-analysis of trials in patients with chronic heart failure.” British Medical Journal. 2004;328:189.
The American Gastroenterological Association. www.gastro.org.