Heartburn….it Burns!!!

It is so disruptive and painful, that it is often confused with a heart attack! Patients are often relieved when they are simply prescribed Nexium, a proton pump inhibitor, to stop this pain that prevents them from sleeping, and being comfortable after meals.

When patients first come to see me, I see on their intake form that they have been on heartburn medication like Nexium, Prevacid, or Domperidone for years, some even up to 20 yrs! This is so alarming to me, as the long term effects are controversial, but well known. These include osteoporosis, magnesium deficiency, enteritis, esophageal cancer, interstitial nephritis, pneumonia, and gastric polyps.

The research isn’t definite, but regardless let’s look at what a Proton Pump Inhibitor does. It works based on the premise that you have too much stomach acid, and it’s creeping up your esophagus. So it minimizes your gastric juices.

From my perspective, this is a band-aid, and not a specific one at that. You may have heartburn due to low stomach acid, which happens when people are under stress, or to the elderly. Low stomach acid causes the sphincter in the stomach to become lazy, allowing stomach acid to splash up the esophagus, to give you a visual.

So, if you stop producing stomach acid what are the long term consequences? You cannot break down your food adequately, and therefore not absorb essential vitamins and minerals. B12 is a well known vitamin deficiency associated with PPIs, but what about all the other important ones? They are decreased as well. A Spleen Chi Deficiency is developed (if not already present) causing a tendency to loose stools, abdominal distension after eating, fatigue, and weight gain.

Your stomach’s ability to break down your food and absorb its goodness is THE foundation of your health. If you are experiencing heartburn, you must assess why this is happening. Some medications, tobacco, and a lack of exercise can cause it. Common foods are fatty and greasy foods, spicy foods, caffeine and alcohol. Chocolate and peppermint can relax that sphincter. Tomatoes and peppers aggravate some. Keep a diet diary and start noticing which foods are not agreeing with you. Many Naturopathic Doctors, or other natural health care providers have alternate means of finding your food sensitivities. My opinion on food sensitivities is that they are common, but not normal. It is important to find your sensitivity, remove the offending food, and then you must heal and tonify the gastro-intestinal tract. Then somewhere down the road, maybe years for some, you can re-incorporate your favourite foods back into your life.

Along with the proper assessment and an individualized treatment plan, my favourite herbs to use are Gentian in tincture form to strengthen the sphincter, and chamomile and marshmallow tea to reduce inflammation and heal the damaged mucosa. In some cases, a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar before meals helps increase those juicy juices.