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Heartburn – It’s just an acid problem, right? (spoiler… it’s not)

For about 20% of Americans the pleasure of eating delicious food is dampened by the familiar burning and sour pain of GERD, also know as acid reflux or heartburn. For many years standard medical care has offered very limited treatments. Treatment is usually avoiding a long list of irritating foods, taking Tums or similar acid reducers, or taking acid reducing medications, such as Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs).   The doctor typically explains that this is a condition to be managed, not cured, and that you can resign yourself to some painful nights awake with a sour stomach after most social events. To make matters worse the stomach is one of our major immune barriers and long term use of PPI medications leave us vulnerable to a host of other infections and immune problems. Interestingly, there may be more to the mechanism of heartburn than we thought.

A new study published in JAMA last week points to cytokine mediated inflammation as the culprit rather than just the searing of your esophagus by stomach acid. This study is in line with how heartburn is viewed from both a Chinese medicine and Functional medicine standpoint.

 

Here is a link to the study and then I’ll give a little personal experience with the dreaded GERD.

 

http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2521970

 

My Personal Battle with GERD

A while back I gradually developed occasional heartburn. It worsened over the course of six months until I really couldn’t eat in a restaurant or enjoy a couple glasses of wine without paying a pretty serious price in burning discomfort. I had to keep a trusty bottle of tums by my bed to assure a good nights sleep. It was always worsened by stress, lack of sleep, or alcohol. What do all of these factors have in common? They stoke the inflammatory response in the body. At the time I was completing my certification in Functional medicine, so I thought this was a perfect opportunity to run a gastrointestinal pathogen lab on myself to screen for any low grade infections. Lo-and-behold the lab came back showing that I had a common infection known as H. Pylori. I immediately began treatment for the H. Pylori using a 2 month protocol of antibacterial botanicals and within a week my heartburn had completely resolved.

As many readers may already know H. Pylori is the infection famous for causing ulcers, but what many people may not know is that is a common driver of generalized stomach inflammation. If I had not ran my own lab looking for this common infection I may have been doomed to a life of nightly tums and no beer and tacos when on vacation in Mexico! (you can sense my panic)

The lesson here is that GERD is a symptom, but not the root cause of this common health complaint. With so many possible factors driving inflammation in our bodies it is important to investigate its source. This may be found in our diet, our stress levels, undiagnosed infections, etc. This has always been recognized in Chinese medicine and the herbal formulas used to treat heartburn are varied depending on the aggravating factor. They are not simply acid blockers, but anti-inflammatory, anti-biotic, and often adaptogenic (stress reducing).

 

Furthermore, acupuncture can be used as an effective tool for treating heartburn. Because acupuncture’s mechanism of action is through the central nervous system it can effectively retrain and normalize the function of the esophageal sphincters, acid production, and gut motility. This makes it an ideal therapy to add to any treatment plan involving Functional medicine, botanical medicine, or pharmaceuticals. In fact, here’s a study showing how acupuncture can treat patients with persistent heartburn when their PPI medications fail:

 

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17875198?ordinalpos=2&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

 

Chronic inflammatory signs in our body should never be ignored. The inflammatory process serves a purpose and should be self limiting. If the body is perpetuating inflammation it means that whatever is at the root is being ignored. If you have been struggling with chronic GERD I encourage you to contact my office today, so we can identify its cause and finally bring you the relief you deserve. As someone who also suffered from this disorder I know firsthand how it can destroy our quality of life!

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