|Acid reflux occurs when food or liquid in the stomach leaks into the esophagus. This irritation of the lining of the esophagus is commonly referred to as heartburn. More than 40 percent of American adults experience acid reflux at least once a month, and 20 percent feel it at least once a week. Chronic acid reflux is the most common symptom of gastroesophagal reflux disease (GERD).
Many Americans take acid-lowering medications such as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) to treat GERD, peptic ulcers, or other disorders of the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract. However, these treatments are based on the misconception that reflux is always the result of too much acid production, which causes the acid to leak into the esophagus.
In fact, more often than not the opposite is true – acid reflux is the result of too little acid. Insufficient stomach acid can hinder the digestive tract’s ability to properly digest proteins and carbohydrates and prevent the overgrowth of bacteria. This can result in an increase in intra-abdominal pressure. This pressure can cause the lower muscle of the esophagus to malfunction, relaxing the tight seal between the stomach and the esophagus, allowing stomach acid to splash up in to the esophagus.
Like many treatments in conventional medicine, PPIs and antacids mask the symptoms of acid reflux while ignoring the underlying cause. PPIs such as Prilosec and Prevacid were never meant for long-term use; many people with heartburn have been taking these drugs for decades, and some patients have reported that the drugs can erode the stomach lining. Symptoms may get worse when patients stop taking the drug, as the underlying cause of the acid reflux itself has not been addressed; that makes it very difficult for patients to get off these drugs. What’s more, a recent study linked PPI to an increased risk of dementia in older patients and concluded that as many as 70 percent of PPI prescriptions could be inappropriate.
Finally, taking acid-lowering drugs also increases the risk of a condition called small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). There is less acid in the bowels to regulate the overgrowth of bacteria or to break down food, which itself can also lead to bacterial overgrowth. SIBO itself is difficult to treat as well, as bacteria can develop a resistance to antibiotics. Even herbal antimicrobial remedies are only effective about 50 percent of the time.
Eastern Medicine views acid reflux as qi that is rising in the digestive system when, in fact, it should be sinking. This can be caused by emotional stress or by consuming foods or drinks that trigger acid reflux. The usual suspects include alcohol, caffeine, carbonated drinks, citrus juices, dairy products, and tomatoes. However, reflux can be triggered by foods that are not typically considered acidic such as salads, raw foods, iced drinks, or fried foods. In Eastern Medicine these are considered to be damaging to the Spleen and Stomach and will negatively affect digestive function.
A variety of herbal remedies can redirect or harmonize the flow of qi, strengthen the digestive system, reduce inflammation, dispel phlegm, or act as antimicrobials. In addition, hydrogen chloride (HCl) with pepsin can supplement and increase stomach acid, while digestive enzymes can help break down food.
Acupuncture is also a proven treatment for acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other GI disorders. Acupuncture can inhibit acid secretion, stimulate muscle contractions within the GI system, and ease the pain in the GI tract, known as visceral hypersensitivity, which is common in IBS patients.