Acid reflux, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, is an uncomfortable and surprisingly common condition. According to the NHS, there has been a 50% increase in people suffering from acid reflux over the last ten years, up to almost 20% of the population.
In fact, acid reflux has become so commonplace it’s often regarded as a normal consequence of eating a rich meal.
In this article we’ll find out why acid reflux occurs and give you some strategies to help put it right.
Many people believe reflux is simply triggered by eating the wrong kinds of food. Indeed, it’s often brought on by fried or spicy foods, acid foods like citrus fruits, tomatoes, fizzy foods, processed foods, coffee or alcohol.
It’s assumed the cause is an overproduction of stomach acid, which then escapes into the oesophagus and burns its delicate lining.
Conventional medicine treats acid reflux by prescribing acid neutralising or blocking drugs. However, stomach acid serves an essential function and reducing it can have adverse effects. For example, too little stomach acid can cause nutritional deficiencies of zinc and vitamin B12, which can lead to fatigue, poor immunity and even nerve damage.
Stomach acid is also needed to initiate protein digestion. If the stomach contents are not acid enough, digestion in the small intestine won’t be as efficient, as it’s the acidity which causes the digestive enzymes in the next stage of digestion to be released. This can cause poor digestion of carbohydrates and fats.
If the stomach acid doesn’t kill off pathogenic bacteria, there is the risk of infections, because the stomach acid is our first line of immune defence.
However, the cause of reflux is not as simple as overproduction of stomach acid. It’s unlikely so many of us would produce excessive stomach acid. In fact, reflux symptoms often increase with age, whereas frequently the production of stomach acid decreases.
Let’s have a look at the structure of the stomach. It has two main valves, called sphincters, one at the top and another at the bottom, which control the entry and exit of food. If the valve at the top relaxes inappropriately, stomach acid will flow upwards into the oesophagus.
This doesn’t usually happen because of an excess of stomach acid, but rather because the sphincter relaxes when it shouldn’t. This often occurs because of an increase in intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) which is the pressure within the abdominal cavity.
It’s believed an increase in this pressure is connected with low levels of stomach acid rather than an excess. Low acid levels lead to incomplete digestion of carbohydrates. If carbs aren’t digested efficiently, they are fermented by bacteria. This causes excess gas, which increases IAP.
Eat mindfully. Sit down, take time to anticipate and appreciate your food, chew it thoroughly and breathe deeply during your meal. Don’t get up immediately after eating.
Deal with stress – try yoga, meditation or deep breathing exercises.
Avoid drinking water during meals which dilutes stomach acid and will further hinder digestion
Functional medicine always seeks to discover the root causes of health concerns. As well as identifying reflux triggers, your therapist will investigate what’s happening in your gut to cause your symptoms.
A Functional Medicine consultation will assess your digestive health by a combination of a comprehensive case history concentrating on your diet, lifestyle and past and present symptoms, along with functional tests to detect food sensitivities and assess the bacterial balance in your microbiome.
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