You may not think your stomach is an issue, especially if all of your symptoms are below the belly button. But just because you don’t experience heartburn or nausea, doesn’t mean you can skip attending to this critical piece in the digestive process. And if you do suffer from heartburn (otherwise known as GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease,) you may be trying to treat it with acid suppressing drugs, which is often exactly the wrong thing to do. I know this sounds counter intuitive but stay with me, I’ll explain in a minute.
Let’s look at how the stomach is supposed to function. First, there are special cells in the stomach that secrete hydrochloric acid (HCL) when you eat. This stuff is so acidic that if you dropped some on your skin it would burn. But we need this acid for several critical functions. It kills microbes, sterilizes your food, and begins the process of splitting proteins apart. Normally it causes you no discomfort because you have a thick mucous lining in your stomach that is continuously repaired by special chemical messengers called prostaglandins. (We’ll talk about these again in the chapter on ulcers.)
So far so good. But what’s going on when you suffer from heartburn? Doesn’t that mean you’re making too much acid? Not necessarily. Actually, only about 10% of heartburn sufferers make too much HCL. The rest are usually making too little. That’s right, they’re actually not producing enough HCL to stimulate the digestive process and begin food breakdown in the stomach. So food sits in the stomach too long and begins to ferment and produce it’s own acids. It’s often these secondary acids that we experience as heartburn. The remedy is to stimulate the production of HCL, not suppress it. This way, food is processed quickly in the stomach and moves on.
There are many other reasons to avoid buffering your stomach with antacids. For instance, HCL secretion also sends a signal to the pancreas to wake up and do its job of secreting enzymes. These enzymes work in the small intestine to break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. So an efficiently working stomach is crucial to the rest of the process.
So if GERD (heartburn) is causing you misery, here is a simple protocol to try on your own: First, run a test by buying a bottle of Betaine Hydrochloride capsules at your health food store. Take one with a meal. If you don’t notice any effect, take two at the next meal. If your problem is low HCL, you should feel some improvement in your symptoms. If you still feel nothing, go ahead and try three capsules. Most people will notice a difference at 2 or 3 capsules. If on the other hand, you notice a hot feeling in your stomach, or burning, then you know that you’ve taken too much. Just cut back to the number that gave improvement without any burning feeling. If you notice burning with only one capsule, then low HCL is probably not your problem. (By the way, never take HCL on an empty stomach, always with your meal.)
Now, what if you find that increasing your HCL levels relieves your indigestion and heartburn? Does that mean you’re stuck with taking capsules all your life? No, not necessarily. There are ways to naturally stimulate your stomach’s ability to secrete HCL. First, refer back to my earlier posts about thorough chewing and not eating on the run. Your stomach will work more efficiently if it gets the right cues.
But also, here’s a secret that many people don’t know—the bitter flavor stimulates gastric secretions. So one way to get your HCL levels back to normal is to get into the habit of taking a dose of bitter herbs about 15 minutes before eating. You can find these at most health food stores, and an easy way to take them is in the form of a liquid extract that you dilute in a little water. Look for some combination of aloe, gentian, dandelion, rhubarb, orange peel, angelica. You may have to take your HCL capsules for a few months, but if you chew well, take your time, relax, and preceed the meal with a dose of bitters, you’ll probably find you can taper off the capsules.
Now there’s one more aspect to dealing with GERD and it’s purely mechanical. If your stomach is absolutely jammed after a huge meal, then you go and plop down on the couch (or worse go to bed,) then naturally, the overloaded stomach is going to put pressure on the valve that lies between the esophagus and the stomach (the esophageal sphincter.) This will force gastric juices to push back up into the esophagus (which does not have the stomach’s protective lining,) causing heartburn and, in the long run, possible severe damage. So there are two important strategies here: one, never eat until you’re completely full, only to about 70% (if you’re going slowly and chewing well, you’ll know when that is.) And two, eat lightly in the evening, at least two hours before you go to bed, and if possible take a pleasant stroll after dinner.
Next we’ll talk a bit about ulcers. Stay tuned.