MALADY MAKEOVER

The ABCs of GERD

Lifestyle changes and natural remedies can cool off chronic heartburn.

By Susan Weiner

March 2009


Visions of green beans and potatoes do not dance in Linda Klein’s head; she envisions café lattes instead. Lattes are her guilty pleasure, but they ignite heartburn that irritates her chest and stomach throughout the day and keeps her lying awake through the night.

A family medicine physician at Oregon City Family Practice in Oregon City, Oregon, Klein knows that a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) keeps stomach acid where it belongs—in the stomach. Located where the esophagus meets the stomach, the LES normally opens to allow food in and gas out, then closes again. When this sphincter weakens, though, stomach contents flow back into the esophagus, causing heartburn and chest pain.

“There are foods, like coffee and chocolate, that decrease sphincter tone,” explains Klein. “And there are foods, including tomatoes and flavored drinks, that increase stomach acidity.” Smoking, certain medications, overeating and excess body weight also make it more likely that acid will back up into the esophagus.

While occasional heartburn isn’t dangerous, chronic heartburn can lead to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which causes recurrent esophageal irritation. More than 21 million Americans are affected by GERD but its symptoms are often misunderstood and frequently untreated, reports the International Foundation for Functional Gastro­intestinal Dis­orders. Part of the problem: Roughly 15% of all sufferers experience non-heartburn complaints such as chronic cough and laryngitis.

Lifestyle Measures

Prescription medications, particularly proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), are commonly prescribed for GERD but are not designed for long-term use. Over time, in addition to robbing the body of vitamins and contributing to bone loss, these drugs tend to mask the problem rather than addressing it.

“The hot thing is that people are taking medications because they have GERD,” explains Jim LaValle, RPH, MS, founder of the LaValle Metabolic Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. “The fact is these medications deplete levels of calcium and vitamin D, protein, B6, B12, folic acid and, in some cases, iron.”

Nicoletta Powell found that out through experience. Doctors discovered an ulcer in Powell’s throat, a result of GERD. Even though the 68-year old school monitor from Rome, New York, already had a weakening of the bones known as osteopenia, her physician prescribed a popular PPI to treat her acid reflux. Over time, Powell’s osteopenia worsened, while bloodwork eventually determined that she had a severe vitamin D deficiency.

“I don’t take the medication anymore,” says Powell. “I take a multivitamin, calcium and vitamin D that has magnesium in it.” She’s also changed her diet, avoiding caffeine, orange juice, tomatoes and spices.

In lieu of drugs, Klein urges patients to make lifestyle adjustments. “What can really help is staying away from acidic foods, eating more frequent, smaller meals and not having a big meal before you go to sleep.” Klein also suggests raising the head of your bed to take pressure off the LES when you lie down.

Dietary Overhaul

Eliminating offending foods is crucial, and doctors, like other GERD patients, have to fight cravings for their favorite foods. “I absolutely love lattes, but I found that when I don’t drink them, my reflux goes away,” says Klein.

One vegetable that may combat GERD is cabbage, either fresh or as sauerkraut. “Cab­bage is really high in the amino acid L-glutamine, an anti-inflammatory that builds the mucosal barrier and helps heal the gut,” says LaValle. Zinc-rich nuts and seeds promote overall healing.

Multivitamins can also ease the harmful effects of fast-paced lifestyles. “Supplements can help manage your metabolism, helping you stay in control of certain metabolic issues such as GERD,” notes LaValle.

Probiotics are helpful bacteria that exist in the digestive tract, and the right probiotic balance helps control acid reflux. To eliminate unhealthy bacteria, LaValle recommends cat’s claw, olive leaf extract and grapefruit seed extract.

Other helpful supplements include Gastro-Block, which helps confine acid to the stomach. Licorice (as deglycyrrhizinated licorice, or DGL) can help promote the secretion of protective stomach mucus. Slippery elm leaves a slick residue in the GI tract, which also helps to alleviate pain associated with reflux.

For anyone who suffers from acid reflux and the heartburn it can cause, a little detective work—and a willingness to make the needed lifestyle changes—can help bring welcome relief.

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