Acid reflux is no fun—especially when it starts happening on a daily basis. While nearly everyone experiences the symptoms of heartburn occasionally, some people have to deal with it after almost every meal. When acid reflux becomes chronic, it is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or peptic ulcer disease.
An estimated twenty percent of Americans suffer from GERD, leading them to spend $13 billion per year on the anti-reflux medications known as “proton pump inhibitors” (PPIs). Research is now suggesting, however, that diets which include and avoid certain foods help acid reflux just as effectively as PPIs in the short-term, and even more effectively as a long-term solution.
What Causes Acid Reflux?
The condition of reflux, or GERD, develops when the contents from your stomach “escape” back up into your esophagus. The escaped stomach acid irritates and inflames the vulnerable esophageal lining, causing discomfort. You have probably heard this condition referred to by other names, including “acid indigestion,” “regurgitation,” or “heartburn.”
If the symptoms of acid reflux occur more than twice a week, it is probable that you have a chronic reflux condition, GERD, and are likely experiencing additional symptoms such as a burning sensation originating in the chest and traveling up into your throat. Some people even mistake this severe burning pain for a heart attack!
The cause of this painful acid reflux is typically thought to be the production of too much stomach acid, but the production of too little stomach acid can also make some conditions (such as stomach ulcers) worsen. This is why medications which suppress stomach acid production, while offering temporary relief, may only perpetuate the problem in the long run.
H. Pylori Bacteria Can Cause Complications
The stomach, when operating properly, keeps all of its acids contained by way of a tightly closed valve between the stomach and the esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). If the LES relaxes at the wrong time and allows food and acid to move back up into the esophagus, the acid “burns” the sensitive tissue in the back of the throat. This condition can also be caused by a hiatal hernia, when the upper part of your stomach bulges through an opening in your diaphragm.
In the 1980s, Helicobacter pylori bacteria was discovered to be a contributor to certain stomach woes. Approximately two-thirds of all humans harbor the H. pylori bacteria in their stomachs. H. pylori contain a built-in mechanism to survive stomach acids: they secrete an enzyme that reduces acidity in the area around them. So medicines which reduce stomach acid production only help H. pylori to proliferate. An overgrowth of H. pylori bacteria causes the stomach lining to become chronically inflamed. While H. pylori are usually not associated with acid reflux symptoms, they have been linked to increased risk for more serious conditions such as stomach ulcers, duodenal ulcers and stomach cancer.
Since the 80s, thousands of articles have been published which reveal that the use of medications to suppress stomach acid does not lessen H. pylori-induced inflammation; instead it allows the H. pylori bacteria to proliferate and worsen the underlying condition. Conventional medical practitioners usually prescribe antibiotics (for the H pylori) in addition to anti-reflux drugs, keeping patients dependent on these medications indefinitely in order to achieve a degree of comfort.
PPIs (such as Prevacid, Prilosec, Nexium, etc.) were originally developed as a short-term treatment for severe GERD problems like bleeding ulcers or esophageal damage. But they are now routinely prescribed for nothing more than frequent heartburn, and research is showing that PPIs are linked to serious side effects. Besides the fact that they can encourage the growth of H. pylori and other bacterial infections in the stomach, PPIs have been linked to a significantly increased risk of dementia, heart attacks and premature death.
A Mediterranean Diet Can Relieve Acid Reflux
To avoid the unwanted side effects of PPIs, many people are trying dietary changes and natural remedies to relieve acid reflux symptoms. These are safer and more permanent solutions, because they support the body’s natural acid production processes.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery found that a Mediterranean diet was as effective as PPIs in treating acid reflux symptoms.
All 184 participants in this study were reflux sufferers who were advised to avoid reflux trigger foods such as alcohol, chocolate, coffee, greasy and fatty foods, spicy foods and tea. The participants were divided into two groups for treatment: one group of reflux sufferers was treated with PPIs and the other group was put on a Mediterranean diet, and drank alkaline water. At the end of the 6-week study, both groups reported a similar lessening of symptoms, with the diet group showing a somewhat higher level of improvement.
The fact that the diet group had achieved their good results without drugs gave them an additional advantage: they were already off medication, and PPIs should not be stopped cold turkey because of the risk for a severe rebound effect.
The Mediterranean diet has long been associated with many overall health benefits, most notably in the areas of brain and heart health. It is also a good choice for helping to restore the body’s natural acid/alkaline balance, because it is (1) low in sugar, (2) moderate in protein and healthy fats, and (3) high in fresh fruits and vegetables.
According to the Mayo Clinic, following a Mediterranean-style diet focuses on:
- Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
- Averaging nine servings a day of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables
- Replacing butter and/or trans fats with healthy fats such as olive oil or avocados
- Using more herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
- Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
- Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week
- Making water your usual drink
- Drinking red wine occasionally (optional)
Simple, Natural Remedies for Heartburn
Several easy and helpful strategies have been used successfully to get heartburn under control. To begin with, reflux sufferers who have a hydrochloric acid deficiency should swap out processed table salt for a natural version like Himalayan salt or sea salt.
Below are some other effective options for improving stomach acid and digestion:
- Take a few spoonfuls of fermented cabbage juice from sauerkraut before a meal.
- Take 1 tablespoon of raw unfiltered apple cider vinegar in a large glass of water prior to a meal.
- Eat some papaya fruit or take a papain supplement. Papain, the enzyme in papaya, helps break down protein, carbohydrates, and even gluten.
- Eat some pineapple or take a bromelain supplement. Bromelain is a proteolytic enzyme which helps digest proteins and has anti-inflammatory activity.
- Drink about one-half cup of aloe vera juice before meals, which can reduce inflammation and ease acid reflux symptoms.
- In an emergency, for painful acid reflux, take one-half to 1 full teaspoon of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) in 8 ounces of water to help neutralize stomach acid. (This is not recommended as a regular solution.)
- Add two or three slices of fresh ginger root to 2 cups of hot water and steep for 30 minutes. Drink this “tea” about 20 minutes prior to your meal.
- Try making a slippery elm “tea” and drinking it 3 times per day. To make the tea, pour 2 cups boiling water over 2 tablespoons powdered slippery elm bark and steep for 3-5 minutes.
- Increase your folic acid intake by eating folate-rich whole foods such as liver, asparagus, spinach, okra and beans. In studies, higher folic acid intake was found to reduce acid reflux by approximately 40 percent.
If you’re considering giving the Mediterranean diet a try, or using some of the remedies listed above, keep in mind that you must also avoid eating foods which have consistently proven to be trigger foods for acid indigestion. The list of foods to avoid includes:
- sodas and carbonated beverages
- greasy and fatty foods
- spicy foods
- any foods to which you are allergic or have a known intolerance.
Also, DO NOT try to go off PPIs cold turkey, if you are already using them, whether they are prescription or over-the-counter versions. These must be decreased gradually over a period of several weeks to several months, depending on the strength you are taking.
Another important tip for those struggling with reflux: don’t eat late at night and then lay down shortly after. This is a recipe for acid reflux. Instead, try to finish your last meal before 7 p.m. and sit up awhile before going to bed.
Finally, while both unprocessed and fermented foods help acid reflux, you can also improve your digestion and ease heartburn symptoms by taking supplemental digestive enzymes. The long-term solution to your problem is closer than you think when you begin eating to restore a healthy acid and alkaline balance.
Have you ever tried the Mediterranean Diet? Or used a natural remedy for acid reflux? Share your experience in the comments!
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DISCLAIMER: Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.