Heartburn: what is it, what does it feel like, what causes it? There are numerous symptoms, such as a burning feeling in your chest, neck, or throat. This is caused by stomach acid backing up into your throat, usually when you lie down or bend over, or even just sitting down. Sometimes heartburn is caused by food intolerances, such as with fatty foods, spicy foods, or carbohydrates. It is commonly caused by low stomach acid.
When heartburn happens, often or is very severe. It can be called a variety of things, such as acid reflux, GERD (which stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease), or reflux.
Let’s talk about specific symptoms of heartburn since this is probably something that can be the most confusing. Simply put, heartburn is a burning sensation occurring in your chest behind your breastbone or sternum---so in the center of your chest. This burning sensation will most likely end up traveling up into your throat or esophagus. In some cases, you’ll also start to taste a bitter, hot, salty or sour flavor at the back of your mouth, which can be quite unpleasant. Sometimes, chunks of food may make it all the way up to your esophagus and into your mouth.
These symptoms will most likely feel worse if you bend over or lie down, which can make it difficult to find relief when you’re suffering. Depending on how bad your flareup is, you could feel chest pain that feels like pressure. Some sufferers experience what feels like heart palpitations or mistake the burning for a heart condition.
So we touched on some of the things that can cause heartburn, but let’s look at those a little bit more in-depth. Eating habits tend to play a large role in heartburn, with some of the big offenders being overeating. Specific foods, such as acidic or spicy, citrus, garlic, tomatoes, alcohol, carbonated beverages, and caffeinated beverages are commonly to blame. Not only does what you eat affect your potential heartburn, but you can actually make heartburn worse by eating too close to bedtime because you aren’t allowing enough time for your stomach to empty before you lie down.
For some people, even just being overweight can contribute to heartburn. Stress and smoking also contribute to heartburn. Interestingly, GERD is often attributed to excess stomach acid; however, in many cases, the reflux is actually caused by low stomach acid or hypochlorhydria.
In the long run, occasional heartburn can be relatively benign, but it all boils down to how often it occurs and how much discomfort it causes. If you are experiencing heartburn frequently, or if you have sporadic heartburn that lasts a long amount of time per flare-up, then you may have GERD, which is something that does need to be treated and regulated.
Long term GERD can cause scarring in your esophagus and lead to cancer. Using heartburn medications like Prevacid comes with its own risks. Recent studies have shown that long term use of proton-pump inhibitors (Prilosec, Prevacid, Protonix, Aciphex, Nexium, Dexilant) causes an increased risk of fractures, diarrhea, Clostridium difficile, low magnesium, vitamin B12 deficiency, chronic kidney disease, and dementia. Those seem like terrible side effects and not worth the risk involved.
When I was in high school, I developed reflux. I can’t say why it started, but I definitely had a high carb and junk food diet. I started taking TUMS to quell the fire in my chest. I started with a few at a time and ended up eating almost an entire roll every day. TUMS contain calcium carbonate and aluminum, which are both associated with kidney damage. TUMS do not solve the problem that acid is refluxing into your esophagus, they just neutralize the acid and burning feeling.
The true cure for reflux is getting to the root of the problem and figuring out WHY acid is refluxing into your throat. TUMS and prescriptions are not cures, but quick fixes that have long term side effects.
What do spicy foods, onion, tomato, garlic, high-carb foods, and carbonated/caffeinated beverages all have in common? All of these different types of foods can cause you to be at risk for heartburn.
They also can increase the occurrence of heartburn, and can even make it worse when it does happen. Food allergies and food sensitivities can cause reflux. But, there are also some medical reasons that can cause you to have heartburn.
Some of the medical reasons you can end up with heartburn include pregnancy, hiatal hernia, h pylori infection, and even the use or overuse of NSAIDs and aspirin. A hiatal hernia happens when your stomach pushes outside of its normal area, which in turn disrupts your digestion and allows stomach acid to travel up into your esophagus.
Are there only pharmaceutical options or do I have some natural remedies at my fingertips?
While you always have the option of taking Prevacid, Nexium, or some other over the counter drug for relief from the burning sensation, you are better off with natural remedies that can help reverse GERD and heartburn in general. The best results will come from a low-carb Paleo diet. This will reduce the stomach acid spillover by reducing the number of carbohydrates you eat. For some sufferers, a change to a low-carb Paleo diet is all that is needed and they are free from their constant discomfort.
Many people who suffer from GERD have carbohydrate intolerance, SIBO, low stomach acid, or a combination of all three issues. That is why a low-carb Paleo diet is the best option for dealing with heartburn. One of my clients had suffered from reflux and tried all of the prescription medications. She was eating/drinking only liquid meals that were very high in sugar and carbohydrates. She had relied on SlimFast and Ensure liquid meals for almost a year.
I recommended a low-carbohydrate protein shake to replace the SlimFast and Ensure. Within a week she was noticeably better and was amazed at the difference she felt.
Although there can be several lifestyle or medical causes of GERD, I always recommend the same starting point: a low-carb Paleo diet. On top of that, I recommend digestive support. A good starting point for digestion is 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (ACV) in 1 ounce of warm water right before eating. About 20% of my clients have benefitted from this practice. For the remaining people, ACV is not enough digestive support and they need additional nutrients.
I recommend a betaine challenge and supplementing with either betaine hcl or a full spectrum formula that includes enzymes also. It is also important to use nutrients to rebuild the mucosal lining of your stomach. As you can imagine, if you experience burning in your stomach and your chest, the tissues are being damaged. Soothing herbs such as licorice and marshmallow can help calm and rebuild stomach tissue.
I lived with GERD for almost a decade. Now, I can’t even remember the last time I had reflux. There are simple and effective solutions available to everyone. Whatever the cause, you have natural and healing alternatives for your occasional or chronic GERD. The first step is the most difficult. If you need guidance that is individual to you and your symptoms, please schedule a consultation with me. We will arrange your diet to decrease the chances of reflux and add in healing nutrients!
Carly Neubert BA, NC
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