(NOTE: This article is from the old School of Natural Healing newsletter)

June 2004

by LindsayWolsey, MH

Recently my neighbor was diagnosed with Heartburn. She wanted to know what she could do holistically, instead of taking her Prilosec prescription. Apparently Prilosec costs $120 a bottle if you’re not insured. Before we can talk about how to treat (and avoid) heartburn, let’s find out what it is.

What is Heartburn?

Heartburn is a feeling of burning, warmth, heat, or pain that often starts in the upper abdomen just beneath the lower breastbone (sternum) and ribs. This discomfort may spread in waves upward into the throat. A sour taste in the mouth may occur with this burning sensation. Heartburn may be called indigestion, acid regurgitation, sour stomach, or pyrosis.

Heartburn can cause bloating, nausea, or burping. Some people find that it is much worse after eating, and others have difficulty swallowing. Heartburn pain and discomfort can last for hours, and is often made worse by lying down or bending over. Sometimes sitting down or standing up will help lessen the discomfort. Some people have difficulty sleeping due to heartburn.

It is important to note that some of the symptoms of heartburn are the same as the symptoms for a heart attack. So it is important to note all of your symptoms, to see if you need to reach for the cayenne or the slippery elm capsules.

Who gets Heartburn?

About 20% of the population experiences heartburn at least once each month. Between 5% and 15% of adults experience severe heartburn. More than 50% of the people who have heartburn are between 45 and 64 years old. About 25% of women have daily heartburn, and 50% of pregnant women experience heartburn once a month.

What causes Heartburn?

When there is an abnormal backflow of food and stomach juices into the esophagus, Heartburn is born. Sometimes the valve where the esophagus joins the stomach temporarily relaxes. When this happens, the contents of the stomach back up into the esophagus. This valve can relax for many reasons, but it’s usually something we ate, like: chocolate, fried foods, fatty foods, (French fries, anyone?), sugars. Once you have heartburn, the following types of foods can irritate it: citrus fruits, tomatoes, garlic, onions, spicy foods. Sometimes it’s something we drank, like: coffee, carbonated beverages, or alcohol. I don’t mean to sound like David Christopher, but if you’re getting heartburn, maybe you should stop eating Twinkies and drinking Coca-Cola.

Prescription medications, and over-the-counter medications can also cause esophageal irritation. I have a close friend who never had Heartburn until they started taking Prozac.

Heartburn can also be caused by an infection of H. pylori.

If you have a hiatal hernia, you’re probably familiar with the discomfort of heartburn.

And let’s not forget everyone’s favorite factor, stress. Stress can increase acid production in your stomach and slow stomach emptying, which increases the risk for heartburn. Even exercise can cause heartburn, if you eat before exercising and drink concentrated sports drinks.

How bad is it?

Mild heartburn only happens about once a month. Heartburn that occurs once a week is considered moderate. Mild to moderate heartburn is not generally considered much of a concern, and people usually treat it over-the-counter, or watch what they eat. On the other hand, daily heartburn is considered severe, and can cause problems such as bleeding, swallowing difficulties, and weight loss. If you have heartburn along with any of the following symptoms, that could mean you are also experiencing GERD (Gastro-esophageal reflux disease): hoarseness, a feeling that something is stuck in your throat, laryngitis, wheezing, asthma, bad breath, dental problems. Severe heartburn can lead to more serious health problems.

Traditional Allopathic Treatments

When dealing with heartburn, most people start by treating it at home, either by using over-the-counter medications, such as Tums, or by changing their diet. Dietary changes usually include: eating smaller meals, avoiding late night snacks, avoiding foods like chocolate, fatty or fried foods, avoiding coffee and other caffeinated beverages, removing carbonated drinks, limiting acidic foods, and avoiding spicy foods. Lifestyle changes include waiting 2 hours to exercise after eating, avoiding tight-fitting clothing, raising the top of the bed 6 inches to prevent stomach acid from flowing out of the stomach. And people should avoid taking aspirin, ibuprofen, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).

Allopathically, people usually try Tums, or Pepto-Bismal. And if that doesn’t work, then they try acid-reducers like Pepcid AC, or Zantac. When the over-the-counter drugs don’t work, then people try the prescription counterparts, or some of the newer drugs, like Prilosec and Nexium.

The problem with acid-reducing drugs is that they decrease the amount of acid the stomach makes. The stomach makes acid for a reason—to help digest food. In the long run, these drugs can cause other problems.

What an Herbalist would do

James Duke mentions using peppermint to deal with heartburn. Peppermint has an age-old reputation for relieving upset stomach and heartburn. What’s interesting is that peppermint is listed on the “do-not-consume” list of foods for heartburn. James Duke also lists angelica, chamomile, licorice, cardamom, cinnamon, dill, fennel, gentian, papaya, and pineapple.

Dr. Christopher said “As heartburn is an acid condition of the system, it is necessary to go on a complete cleansing program to clean out the system. Proper foods, proper eating habits, and effective elimination are very important. A cure is effected only with a complete change of living habits.” So what is a completed change of living habits? For starters, switching from whatever you’ve been eating to the mucusless diet. So this means no sugar, no white flour, no dairy, and eating whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. This is also going to entail an extended herbal cleanse, cleansing out the elimination systems of the body.

Some people have found relief using a combination of slippery elm and licorice root at a 3:4 ratio. Many people have tried eating raw papaya with meals, or using a papaya based supplement. Sometimes the papaya based supplements aren’t entirely natural, but they are a lot closer than Tums!

I told my neighbor that I would put together a slippery elm and licorice combination for her, and that I’d let her try some of the papaya supplements that my husband swears by. I also told her to cut down on the Diet Cokes—but that’s another story.