Alongside acid reflux, heartburn is the main symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
We usually answer the question of how to stop heartburn with medication and over-the-counter antacids are the go-to outlet for relief.
For prolonged bouts with heartburn, doctors tend to prescribe acid-suppressing drugs. These include proton pump inhibitors (PPI) and H2 antagonists (otherwise known as H2 blockers).
However, these are powerful drugs with potentially dangerous side effects. Furthermore, too much stomach acid isn’t always the cause of heartburn.
This article will look at some natural remedies for heartburn that tackle the real root cause of GERD.
What is Heartburn?
Heartburn is a digestive disorder and a symptom of GERD.
It has the following symptoms (1);
- An acidic feeling in the throat and mouth
- A burning sensation or sharp pain behind the breastbone
- A chronic cough and a hoarse voice
- Finding it difficult to swallow; sufferers often have difficulty swallowing
- Excessive belching
- Pain in the chest – especially after eating or when bending down, exercising, or laying down at night
What Causes Heartburn?
Heartburn happens when stomach acid refluxes or leaks into the esophagus.
This leakage happens when a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) fails.
The LES is a kind of barrier that has the job of preventing stomach acid from entering the esophagus.
While most people believe the cause of heartburn is too much stomach acid, this is actually quite rare.
- Bacterial overgrowth in the gut
- Too little stomach acid
The Usual Prescription For Heartburn
Unless we address the underlying factors causing the condition, then chronic heartburn (and continuous medication) will be the result.
Sure, drugs mask and relieve the symptoms – but they do little to resolve the cause of the three listed above.
We’ll look at some natural ways to get rid of heartburn shortly, but first, let’s take a quick look at the conventional drug treatments for the condition.
Dangerous Side Effects of Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPI) and H2 Blockers
The two main classes of drugs which treat GERD are;
- Proton Pump Inhibitors; some common PPI drugs include Omeprazole, Esomeprazole, Pantoprazole, and Lansoprazole. PPI are thought of as the best treatment for acid reflux and work by blocking enzymes responsible for producing acid (5).
- H2 Receptor Blockers; popular drugs in this class include Cimetidine, Ranitidine, Famotidine, and Nizatidine. H2 blockers decrease the production of stomach acid through blocking histamine from landing on H2 receptors in the stomach lining’s parietal cells. This process results in the stomach reducing production of hydrochloric acid (6).
Depending on the strength of drug (and country), they are available over-the-counter or by prescription.
GERD is a potentially serious issue, and it is understandable that people want to fix it as quickly as possible.
In spite of this, a wealth of scientific literature shows there are long-term side effects of PPI drugs and H2 blockers.
Additionally, although drugs often fix the symptoms of GERD, they don’t always tackle the root cause and instead offer short-term relief.
In particular, drugs to treat heartburn and GERD have links to the following conditions;
Some studies suggest that long-term use of proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers increase the risk of dementia.
The reason for this is that these medications influence many of the pathways which can lead to dementia.
Hypomagnesaemia and Hypercalcemia
Hypomagnesemia is when the levels of magnesium in the body are far too low.
Hypercalcemia is a condition where the blood contains excessive levels of calcium.
Left untreated, both of these issues cause a broad range of health problems and complications may include (11);
- A weakening condition of the bones/osteoporosis.
- Kidney damage
- Calcification of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
- Several studies show that PPI users have a higher risk of developing chronic kidney disease (15, 16, 17).
- Notably, researchers believe that using proton pump inhibitors may cause silent, progressive kidney damage.
- There is a strong link between PPI drugs, bone mineral density, and the risk of fracture (18, 19, 20).
- Some studies suggest there is a connection between proton pump inhibitors and pneumonia, particularly in older adults (21, 22).
- Other studies appear to show no relationship between PPIs and pneumonia, suggesting that the connection may be due to co-founders (23, 24).
Natural Remedies For Heartburn
Various natural heartburn remedies tackle the underlying cause of GERD rather than just masking the symptoms.
However, these very much depend on the root cause and how it is causing these symptoms.
This cause should not be guesswork, and it’s a good idea to consult a physician to understand the situation.
Here are five natural heartburn remedies that don’t require harsh drugs;
I know, it sounds counterintuitive to get rid of acid reflux by….increasing stomach acid?
However, too little stomach acid (hypochlorhydria) is a particularly frequent cause of heartburn.
In fact, a study from the University of Manchester shows that low stomach acid is more frequently a cause than is excessive acid (25).
This condition is especially the case as we age, with studies showing that up to 30% of people age 60 years and over suffer from atrophic gastritis (26).
Atrophic gastritis is a condition in which damaged stomach cells result in critically low stomach acid production.
Without sufficient production of hydrochloric acid, we cannot adequately break down and digest our food.
In the long-term, this can lead to all kinds of nutrient deficiencies and health problems.
Bacterial overgrowth in the gut can also cause low stomach acid, which we will look at later on.
How Can We Increase Stomach Acid?
The first thing to do is to make sure the problem actually does relate to low stomach acid, so testing stomach acid levels is a good start.
Wild guesses and self-diagnosis on the Internet is not a safe game to play – so do check this out. There are various ways to test this, ranging from extensive lab testing to cheap at-home tests.
If lacking stomach acid is the issue, there are several ways to improve the situation;
- Betaine HCI: this is a supplement that has been in use since the 19th century. It contains hydrochloric acid and has been shown to safely re-acidify the stomach (27).
- Apple Cider Vinegar: a small serving of this just before dinner can help aid a struggling digestive system due to its acidity.
- Digestive Bitters: bitters are another dietary supplement with proven digestive benefits in people with poor digestion (28).
- Thoroughly Chewing Food: When stomach acid is low, the less work your stomach has to do – the better. Making sure to chew (pre-digest) the food as much as possible helps.
2. Avoid “Trigger” Foods and Behaviors
One of the best ways to relieve acid reflux is to avoid trigger foods.
However, it’s important to realize that these foods do not cause heartburn/GERD.
Therefore, avoiding them does not offer any cure, and the underlying issue will still need addressing.
Foods that trigger heartburn vary from person to person, but some common foods that can cause problems include (29);
- Caffeinated drinks in general
- Citrus fruits like grapefruit, lemons, and limes
- Garlic and onions
- Spicy food and hot chili peppers
As stated, avoiding these foods will do nothing to solve an underlying issue, but it will help stop uncomfortable heartburn flare-ups.
Some other triggers of heartburn may include;
- Eating before bed – heartburn can be particularly severe when lying down at night.
- Intense exercise – vigorous activity may cause heartburn symptoms
- Significant amounts of food in one meal
- A high BMI – being overweight is a primary risk factor for heartburn
Quick Relief For Severe Heartburn
A famous home remedy for heartburn is to use baking soda when experiencing a severe flare-up.
Baking soda is a natural antacid with an alkaline PH; drinking one teaspoon dissolved into water will help to relieve acid reflux (30).
3. Do You Have a Hiatal Hernia?
One root cause of GERD could be a hiatal hernia, which is a condition many people don’t even realize they have.
A hiatal hernia occurs when the stomach is displaced and squeezes through the diaphragm opening and into the chest.
The prevalence rate is significantly higher in people with a high body mass index (BMI) (31).
This diagram shows what is happening with a hiatal hernia;
- Abdominal pain
- Frequent belching
- Difficulty swallowing
- Chest pain
If a hernia is only very small, then usually no further action is taken.
However, hiatal hernias causing severe side effects may require surgery.
If you suspect a hiatal hernia, then check with a healthcare professional to make sure and discuss options.
4. Reduce Bacterial Overgrowth
A commonly occurring condition known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) might be to blame.
Although they all have lots of complex scientific names, let’s just refer to these as ‘bad bacteria.’
They often develop through the over-consumption of refined carbohydrates like bread, cakes, and sugar.
These bacteria ferment carbohydrate into gas, and once an established “colony” of them is present, then this fermentation creates large amounts of gas (34).
This gas can then rise upward and cause a significant amount of pressure on the LES valve, causing it to open and allowing gas and stomach acid into the esophagus.
How Can We Reduce Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth?
On the positive side, it is possible to reduce and kill bacterial overgrowth through dietary change.
Although it isn’t an instant fix and it may feel like GERD will never go away, it just takes time.
The key is to restrict the food source—carbohydrate—of the bacteria.
Slowly, the bacteria will die off and—since carbohydrate will be low—have little food to ferment into gas.
As a result, the pressure forcing the LES valve open will dissipate and the acid reflux and heartburn will subside.
Specifically, several studies show that low FODMAP (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols) diets significantly decrease the bacterial population of the gut (35, 36).
If you have no idea what that means, then low FODMAP simply means a diet low in fermentable carbohydrate.
5. Restore Beneficial Gut Bacteria
After solving the imbalance between good and bad bacteria in the gut, the next thing to do is restore a high population of good bacteria.
In recent years, emerging science suggests that this gut bacteria plays an important protective role in our overall health.
Additionally, these probiotics help protect the body against ‘bad bacteria’ overgrowth and can be helpful in treating GERD.
While you can find all sorts of expensive probiotic supplements, real food is always the best option.
Unlike supplements and food products that may or may not contain live probiotics, we can be sure that fermented food does. It’s a lot cheaper too (39).
Some good probiotic foods include;
- Apple cider vinegar
- Raw cheese
By including these kinds of foods in your diet, gut health will only improve.
As long as carbohydrates are limited, the overall diversity of gut bacteria should slide toward the positive side.
Overall, heartburn and GERD are frustrating, sometimes chronic conditions that cause a great deal of stress and discomfort.
However, immediately taking acid-suppressing drugs can often cause more harm than good – especially since the true cause of heartburn is often too little acid.
Fortunately, there are also natural ways to get rid of heartburn and stop acid reflux.
In contrast to powerful PPI drugs, these natural heartburn remedies also have no side effects.