You know the feeling – when your throat and neck constrict, it can feel like you just swallowed an entire slice of cake whole.
For some people, all it takes is a glass of orange juice to make their chests feel tight. For others, an infraction as small as eating ketchup with your french fries can set it off. Spicy food, alcohol, coffee, pregnancy, onions, and more can trigger discomfort… as well as simply laying down after consuming any of those things.
But “heartburn” is something of a misnomer. Heartburn is caused by stomach acid contents traveling back up the esophagus, the same tube food contents traveled down to get to the stomach. Tightness, burning, and stinging pain in the lower chest are the most common symptoms.
The medical term for that event is gastroesophageal reflux, acid reflux, or GERD.
That’s right. Heartburn is a gut health issue.
The more we learn about the gut, the more clear it becomes that its health is paramount to the seamless functionality of the rest of our bodies. And heartburn is no exception – especially because one in four Americans suffers from heartburn about once a month.
Typically, acid reflux is treated with over-the-counter antacids, which attacks the symptom, but not the underlying problem.
The problem is that not only can acid reflux be caused by gut dysbiosis, and that acid reflux medication itself can make gut dysbiosis worse.
Let’s examine that paradox more closely…
The Flow of Reflux
Gut dysbiosis refers to a microbiome that is out of balance – one with more negative and harmful bacteria than powerful and positive bacteria. Lots of bad things happen when your gut’s microbiome isn’t well-balanced…
Things like acid reflux, halitosis (breath so bad there’s a medical classification for it), upset tummy, diarrhea, constipation, brain fog, anxiety, depression, and so much more.
The prevailing scientific theory is that heartburn is meant to be a warning… much the same way that a fever is your body’s way of telling you “Something isn’t right” and trying to fix it.
Heartburn signals a bacterial imbalance. Something in the gut isn’t functioning the way that it should, and the reason it isn’t functioning well is that its bacterial profile isn’t filled out the way it should be.
Previously, it was thought that acid reflux indicated an overflow of stomach acid… that that’s why it was flowing back up the esophagus.
Actually, acid reflux suggests there isn’t enough stomach acid in the stomach, a problem which leads to leaky gut syndrome.
If there was enough stomach acid to digest the food you’ve sent to the stomach, food contents and acid wouldn’t be traveling back up through the chest!
Not only that, but PPIs (proton pump inhibitors), which are commonly used to treat acid reflux, tend to kill bacteria indiscriminately of whether they’re good or bad in order to restore stomach acid levels to their previous heights.
So acid reflux, an event caused by dysbiosis, is commonly solved by a medication that further imbalances the gut.
Quick Ways to Temper Heartburn
First and foremost: if you suffer regularly from gut-related maladies, it’s likely that your microbiome has an uneven ratio of positive to negative bacteria.
Reduce alcohol consumption, eat plenty of colorful veggies, and eliminate processed and refined sugars. Consider a supplement to your healthier behavior to boost specific beneficial bacteria populations!
But in the moment…
Here are a few things you can do instead of taking over-the-counter PPIs:
- Stand up and stretch to relieve the pressure on your esophageal sphincter, the muscle ring responsible for restricting stomach acid from entering the esophagus.
- If you’re wearing clothes that are tight around the stomach, and potentially compressing it, loosen them!
- Mix a teaspoon of baking soda into a glass of water and sip it slowly… it will help to dissolve the stomach acid.
- Chew gum to help produce extra saliva and loosen particles in the esophagus, pushing the stomach acid back down the tube.
- And try folk remedies like chewing on ginger or drinking ginger tea, taking licorice supplements, or sipping on apple cider vinegar. While none have been corroborated by peer-reviewed scientific materials, they have been used as homegrown remedies in various medicinal sects for many years.
It’s important – now, as ever – to pay close attention to the signals our body is giving us.
We are meant to self-regulate. Since we’ve added so many synthetic and artificial practices over the millennia of human development, self-regulation needs more of a nudge than it once did.
If you’re experiencing regular heartburn, you know it’s a gut issue. So start in the gut – where everything else begins.