What are Heartburn and GERD, and Do Antacids Help?

what is heart burn?We often hear several ads on Antacids to help with heart burn or GERD. You probably have someone in the family with heartburn who is probably on some form of acid lowering medications. As a functional medicine doctor in Singapore, I get questions about antacids frequently.

How are these meds supposed to decrease the heartburn? They tend to lower the levels of stomach acid either by neutralizing the stomach acid or by shutting down the body’s ability to produce the acid. The mainstream medical approach is to keep taking these till the symptoms persist. Read further to see if they really cure the heartburn and you do not need them anymore?

What is Heartburn?

Heartburn is caused by the acid moving upwards into the esophagus causing a burning sensation in the lining of the mucosa because of the lower esophageal sphincter’s (LES) relaxation or dysfunction. This acid backflow causes a burning sensation in the chest, which is commonly known as heartburn. Regular occurrences may signify gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), necessitating medical intervention. Antacids help to block it or reduce the acidity, thereby giving the relief. But, is this a cure or symptomatic relief? Is there really an excess of acid in the stomach? Most importantly, is it healthy to reduce the stomach acids?

Are Antacids and PPIs Effective Against Heartburn and GERD?

Antacids do reduce the acidity, but they do not stop the acid going from where it should not belong. There is a valve called LES (lower esophageal sphincter) at the end of the esophagus which prevents the food from re entering the esophagus from the stomach. So the valve is shut tight in presence of food in the stomach except during burping-when it opens. The LES tends to relax in situations like food sensitivities, alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. A major cause not accepted widely, but theorized by experienced integrative practitioners is the presence of low acid in the stomach causing the LES to relax leading to the reflux of acid. Thus, would antacids really help with the heartburn?

Numerous studies have shown that stomach acid secretion declines with age. In one study researchers found that over 30 percent of men and women past the age of 60 su?er from atrophic gastritis, a condition marked by little to no acid secretion. Another study found that 40% of women over the age of 80 produce no stomach acid at all.

Does The Risk of GERD Increase With Age?

Just as studies show acid secretion declines with age, it is also well established in the scienti?c literature that the risk of GERD increases with age. If heartburn were caused by too much stomach acid, we’d have a bunch of teenagers popping tums and not the elderly.

Yet, when one goes to a doctor, Antacids and PPI’s are often prescribed without testing for the stomach acid. When tested, it often reveals a low stomach acid than excess acid. So the theory holds true that low stomach acid relaxes LES.

Stomach acid is essential for absorption of minerals, proteins and key nutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin B12, folate and calcium. One of Stomach acid’s major role is carbohydrate digestion and to inhibit bacterial overgrowth. People who have low stomach acids are prone to carbohydrate mal digestion and bacterial overgrowth causing gas. The resulting gas in turn causes the intra-abdominal pressure to rise and becomes a driving force for the LES to stay open. Thereby, the whole cycle perpetrates to more heartburn and GERD.

Are There Better Alternatives to Antacids For Heartburn and GERD?

Since low stomach acid is a major concern in people with heartburn, some doctors have found that acid supplements often cure the problem. The supplements also help restore the digestive system, which enables better absorption of nutrients. Of course, do not take acid except with the advice and under the care of a licensed doctor. If acid is normal in a person suffering from heartburn, his or her physician will often recommend testing for food allergies that could be causing the LES to malfunction. In addition there are other natural supplements and herbs and time tested traditional remedies that have been proven to help strengthen LES function and improve stomach acid. So if you are suffering from heartburn, especially with any frequency, look for an integrative gastro doctor in Singapore (one who combines the use of supplements and natural remedies with more conventional approaches as needed) who is familiar with stomach acid level testing, and can get to the real cause of your heartburn.


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