It's Not A Heart Attack
The first time it happens, you may think you're having a heart attack or that you're choking -- or both. On the other hand, it might be a feeling of being overly full. Perhaps you even find it difficult to swallow. It is acid reflux, a common problem with a number of uncomfortable symptoms. For some people, what starts as an occasional episode progresses to a chronic condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), but for many people it is simply an unpleasant now-and-then part of life. Indeed, estimates are that 40% of Americans have acid reflux at least once a month. Although it often accompanies aging, acid reflux is by no means only an age-related problem. The constant deluge of TV ads for acid reflux medication would have you believe that drugs are the answer. However, other than to treat ulcers, these drugs are mostly unnecessary and even harmful. For advice on the natural approach to easing acid reflux, I called Chris D. Meletis, ND, former dean and chief medical officer of the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon and author of seven books on natural health.
WHAT'S GOING ON?
Dr. Meletis says that the reason acid reflux is so often a problem with age is that as they hit age 50, the body produces a greater volume of acid, but it is weaker and less effective. Additionally, production of digestive enzymes by the pancreas goes down and, for people who have had their gall bladders removed, there is considerably less bile to aid digestion. It's not a rosy picture -- instead of a reasonable amount of efficient stomach acid, there is a large volume of weak acid without strong digestive partners to assist it. Adding to the digestive mayhem is the weakening or relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), an event that is especially frequent among the over-50 crowd. This is the flap that opens to receive what you've swallowed and shuts to keep it down. If the LES relaxes or weakens, the door is open, and when there is a large volume of food and diluted digestive acid present in the stomach, an acid reflux episode follows. Dr. Meletis compares it with a percolating coffee pot, filled up and percolating nicely -- but this "coffee pot" is your stomach pulsing diluted acid into your esophagus. Dr. Meletis adds that the LES sometimes relaxes suddenly, particularly in response to large amounts of high protein, which explains why occasionally you might experience a startling rush of pressure in the chest when you are eating.
Even given the bodily changes that impact digestion, we often are our own worst enemies when it comes to acid reflux. Some simple lifestyle changes can help:
*Lose weight if necessary. Being overweight adds pressure to the area and is highly associated with acid reflux.
*Don't eat before bed. Since gravity helps keep stomach contents moving downward, you'll sleep better if your stomach is nearly empty. Don't eat or drink (except a bit of water) for several hours before bedtime and avoid large evening meals, says Dr. Meletis.
*Sleep at an angle. Prop up the head of your bed or sleep with enough pillows to angle your torso.
*Avoid trigger foods. You already may be avoiding certain foods that you find trigger unpleasant reactions, but there are some -- chocolate, mint of any sort and caffeine -- you should definitely shun because they cause the LES to relax. (Ironically, for those people who have normal digestion, mint is helpful because it increases acid production.)
*Minimize fluids at mealtime to prevent further diluting stomach acids that you now need to digest your food.
*Don't overeat. Pressure in your stomach from large meals puts pressure on the LES.
*Chew your food thoroughly to give it an early assist in digestion. Dr. Meletis says that being stressed or eating in a rush is often to blame, especially if you get a sudden feeling of a lump in your chest and have trouble swallowing. Should that happen, sit quietly, take a few sips of liquid if you can and squirm around in a snake-like fashion. Moving slightly to the right and left will help stomach contents head downward again.
For immediate relief, Dr. Meletis recommends deglycerized licorice (DGL). It coats the stomach lining with mucus and has been shown to work as well as acid blockers for instant relief. DGL is available from your natural-food store and does not affect blood pressure, as does regular natural licorice. For long-term correction, he advises plant-based digestive enzymes such as Prevail's Vitase Digestion Formula or Rational Alternative's Assimilate. The rule of thumb with enzymes is to go low and start slow -- take several pills with larger meals (lunch and dinner as a rule) and see how you do. Contributing editor, Andrew L. Rubman, ND, adds that digestive enzymes with meals, fresh fruit and vegetable juices and, believe it or not, sauerkraut, are some other options to improve digestion and ease discomfort. Your health practitioner may want to start you on supplementation of more powerful acids that are available. However, Dr. Meletis cautions that the only way to do this requires supervision under the care of a professional.