Call it acid stomach, reflux, GERD or upset tummy. It’s just plain nasty.
The burning, gnawing pain can be a misery. Often, the conventional solution is to counter the acid your stomach secretes. But guess what? Sometimes the amount of acid isn’t the problem.
It’s Not Always Hyperacidity
Yes, you read that correctly. You can have normal or even low levels of stomach acid and still have symptoms of reflux or gastritis. And if you treat those symptoms with acid suppressing medications, not only are you trying to solve a problem you don’t have, you are actually creating more problems for yourself.
Problems like poor absorption of minerals and vitamins that could potentially lead to nutrient deficiency diseases such as osteoporosis and certain kinds of anemia. Problems like incompletely digested protein that could contribute to the development of food sensitivities and inflammation in the digestive tract. Problems such as chronic bloating, gas and digestive discomfort.
What’s Going On?
So, if the problem is not too much acid, what is it?
In the case of heartburn, it could be reflux due to a hiatal hernia or faulty closure of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Upset tummy can be gastritis, caused by an infection or inflammation brought on by exposure to irritants such as medications, alcohol or coffee.
It’s not always easy to differentiate what’s going on based on symptoms alone. When acid splashes into the esophagus because the LES isn’t working properly or because of a hiatal hernia, it can do serious damage to the delicate tissue there. Normal levels of stomach acid can worsen gastritis, leading to ulcers. That’s why MDs prescribe acid-blocking medication. BUT they should also be doing follow-up tests to narrow down the diagnosis so you don’t have to be on the medication repeatedly or long term.
The final, specific diagnosis is going to point the way to the proper (long term) treatment. Gastritis that is caused by an infection with the micro-organism called H. pylori is best treated with antibiotics. If the gastritis is due to a lifestyle factor, such as alcohol, coffee, spicy food or a poor diet, or stress/emotional issues, then management of those factors will have to be front and centre. If it is medication-related, then you may need a change of prescription.
For GERD, the main (conventional medical) treatments are medications and surgery. Lifestyle modification, including weight loss and changes in eating habits, are usually recommended.
The naturopathic approach is to narrow down the diagnosis in the same way an MD would but to also consider the context for it: the health of your entire digestive system. You may be assessed for other infections (yeast) or food sensitivities.
Recommendations for dietary and lifestyle changes will be made. You may be asked to perform certain exercises to strengthen the LES or diaphragm. Botanicals, such as licorice and marshmallow, probiotics and/or homeopathic remedies may be prescribed to alleviate your symptoms while you make other changes to address their cause(s). Acupuncture is also sometimes used to restore balance to a digestive system in disequilibrium.
If you’ve been on acid-reducing medication for a while, you will be assessed for signs of nutrient deficiency and supplements may be recommended in addition to a therapeutic diet to get you back on track.
If you have a stomach acid problem, make sure the treatment offered is the solution to the right problem. A correct, confirmed diagnosis is key. Naturopathic treatments might require a little more effort than simply popping an acid-reducing pill, but they yield fantastic results without the nutrient deficiency complications that can accompany long term medication use.