Acid reflux, and the heartburn that results, occurs when acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus. About one-third of Americans experience heartburn on a regular basis. Treatment with both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications might temporarily stop the burning, but the relief can come at a substantial health cost.
Conventional doctors generally blame excess stomach acid, or hyperacidity, for acid reflux, even though a mechanism to support this claim has not been found. A defective or weakened lower esophageal sphincter, the valve at the top of the stomach, is generally where the blame is placed, although that does not address why excess acid is the culprit.
Many holistic doctors believe that the cause of acid reflux is actually too little stomach acid, or hypoacidity. From what is known about how the digestive process works, these claims can be substantiated.
After chewing, food goes down the esophagus and into the stomach via the esophageal sphincter. The presence of food in the stomach triggers a hormone called gastrin, which controls the amount of gastric juices that are secreted.
Hydrochloric acid (HCl) is one of the main components of gastric juices. Enough stomach acid needs to be produced to reduce the stomach pH to around 1.5-2.5. This triggers protein-digesting enzymes, kills harmful microbes, and allows for proper mineral absorption.
If at any time the pH of the stomach drops too low, the hormone gastrin is inhibited and the production of HCl ceases. This negative feedback mechanism is commonly ignored, or unknown, by many conventional doctors.
Frequently, it is too little stomach acid that causes digestive distress. Too little HCl inhibits proper digestion and prolongs the time the food stays in the stomach. The longer the food sits in the stomach, the greater the chance of the esophageal sphincter relaxing and allowing acids to come up into the esophagus. Pepsin, the main enzyme responsible for protein digestion, can also irritate the stomach if present for long periods of time.
When someone takes an antacid for acid reflux, the drug dramatically increases the pH of the stomach. The stomach responds by producing more HCl in an attempt to bring the pH back down.
Encouraging more HCl production is beneficial, but the way these OTC drugs go about this actually makes the problem much worse. This is because the cells responsible for making stomach acid, the parietal cells, need to have reserves of certain minerals in order to produce the HCl. The most important of these minerals are zinc, magnesium, and chloride.
But a person experiencing frequent episodes of heartburn is more than likely already depleted in these minerals, so the parietal cells do not have enough energy to keep up the HCl production. When the antacids stop working, conventional doctors tend to recommend protein-pump inhibitors (PPI). These kinds of drugs completely block stomach acid production.
Low stomach acid, and the corresponding higher stomach pH, already leaves people vulnerable to food poisoning, ulcers, parasites, and other kinds of stomach infections. It also makes it difficult to utilize protein and critical nutrients from food.
Acid reflux medications greatly increase these nutrient deficiencies, notably B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, copper, calcium and magnesium. In fact, last May the FDA warned that long-term users of PPI`s were at increased risk of bone fractures. The agency was unable to link deficiencies in calcium and magnesium to the bone loss, however, stating “the association between the drugs and bone fractions is still not understood.” Other side effects seen from long-term PPI usage are stomach atrophy, liver damage, anemia, fungal growth in the esophagus, and cancerous stomach polyps.