Acid reflux is a big problem.
44% of Americans have heartburn at least once a month. 25 to 35% have reflux. Acid-blocking drugs or what we call PPIs like Nexium, Prevacid, Prilosec—that little purple pill—are the third most prescribed medications in the country. Recently, I was at a medical insurance company, and they told me that the third most expensive condition after heart disease and diabetes for their population is reflux because of all the scopes, pills, and procedures needed to treat it. Reflux causes tremendous problems, and nobody is asking why. Why are we suffering from reflux? What is the cause? Is it something we are doing or something we are eating? Is there some other factor that’s driving this epidemic?
Getting to the root cause of reflux
In Functional Medicine, we ask, “What is the root cause of the problem, and how do we correct it?” For reflux, the root cause is sometimes very straightforward. It may be what we are eating. Some common triggers of reflux include:
- Fried foods
- Spicy foods
- Citrus foods
- Tomato-based foods
- Processed foods
Acid reflux could be caused by other factors, as well:
- Eating right before bed
- Eating with an already full stomach—which can cause the food to come back up.
- Being overweight and having a big belly—which can push your stomach up, causing reflux.
- Chronic stress affects the nerves in your stomach, making it impossible to process the food properly. This will cause food to go up instead of down. In fact, in order to digest your food well, you have to relax. So, breathing before eating is a very important tool.
- Loss of magnesium, which is caused by stress. Magnesium is needed to relax the sphincter at the bottom of your stomach that actually lets the food go down. When you don’t have enough magnesium, the food goes up.
- Food sensitivities that may not be diagnosed by your average physician, including gluten and dairy.
- Bad bacteria or yeast growing in your stomach. If you have been on a lot of antibiotics, if you have been on hormones, if you eat a lot of sugar and processed food, you could grow bad bugs in your gut, and they ferment and push things around and cause reflux.
- H. Pylori, a bacterium that affects a number of people in our population, can sometimes be linked to reflux.
So, there’s a whole series of causes, everything from what you are eating, to your lifestyle, to stress, to smoking, caffeine, alcohol, to bacteria in your gut, to food sensitivities—all these things can trigger reflux.
Correcting your acid reflux at its source
The key to solving this problem isn’t taking an acid blocker, which can cause all sorts of problems. It may give you symptomatic relief, but there are problems with these drugs. They may cause an increase in pneumonia, in bloating, in overgrowth of bad bugs in your gut. They might also prevent mineral absorption. You need some acid in your stomach in order to digest your food and absorb the nutrients it contains. So, reducing the acid in your stomach could lead to mineral and vitamin deficiencies. For example, a B12 deficiency is really common. If you’ve been taking an acid blocker for many years, then you can get a zinc deficiency or a B12 deficiency that can cause depression. It can cause neuropathy, memory problems, digestive issues, osteoporosis, and much more.
So, the key isn’t taking the drug. It’s finding the cause. Functional Medicine is medicine by cause not by symptom, and that is exactly what we do with the reflux.
There are some really simple actions you can take to see if there are any specific triggers that are causing your problem.
- Fix your diet. The things that are common and easy to remove are spicy foods, citrus foods, tomato-based foods, and fried foods. Simple.
- Get rid of possible food allergens for a short period of time, like two weeks. Gluten and dairy are the most common ones.
- Try to get rid of the triggers for a few weeks, like alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, all of which trigger reflux. Not forever, but try it for a little while, and see if it’s causing your problem.
- Change your lifestyle. For example, don’t eat three hours before bed. Give yourself a chance to digest your food.
- Deal with stress before you eat. Try a very simple technique that I call “Take Five.” Take five breaths before each meal. Count in to the count of five, out to the count of five, and breathe deeply. You’ll notice a huge relaxation in your nervous system, and you’ll digest your food better.
- Get tested. If you are still not getting better after taking these steps, then, you’ll want to do some testing, which you can do with your Functional Medicine doctor:
- Test for H. Pylori
- Check for celiac and gluten sensitivity
- Check for food sensitivities
- Check for abnormal bugs in your gut, bacterial overgrowth, yeast overgrowth, and parasites
So, now, I want to hear from you…
- Do you have reflux?
- What have you tried?
- Have you tried the little purple pill? Did you get side effects?
- What have you tried that’s worked?
- Have you figured out the cause of your reflux?
One of the most prevalent comorbidities of IPF is acid reflux, affecting thousands of patients every year. Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below, and subscribe to join our community.
Dr. Mark Hyman is dedicated to tackling the root causes of chronic disease through Functional Medicine. Republished with permission of Dr. Hyman from his article on reducing acid reflux.