Heartburn can turn a wonderful meal into what feels like a three alarm fire. It’s best known for the characteristic burning sensation between the bottom of your throat and the top of your chest. However, it can also cause a sore throat, hoarseness, a chronic cough, an acidic taste in your mouth, and even difficulty swallowing. Regardless how it manifests, heartburn can affect your quality of life and ruin your love of good food.
Also known as gastro esophageal reflux disease (GERD), or simply acid reflux, heartburn can occur for different reasons:
- The muscle at the base of your esophagus (esophageal sphincter) becomes lax
- Too little stomach acid
- Too much stomach acid
- The result of overeating
While many people believe heartburn is the result of too much stomach acid, it is actually the least common reason, yet people are most frequently treated for this. For those who have too little stomach acid, which is the most common cause, food tends to stagnate and cause the upward movement of fluids that contain stomach acids. When the muscle at the base of your esophagus is loose it allows stomach acid to wash upward into your esophagus, causing discomfort and burning.
If you suffer from heartburn, you’re not alone. About 50 million Americans also have heartburn, with almost half experiencing symptoms daily. Standard treatments include antacids which neutralize the acid, and over the counter or prescription strength H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors that actually block your body’s ability to produce acid.
While Western medicine is focused on neutralizing or decreasing the acid in your stomach, Chinese medicine has a little different take on treating heartburn, which is to understand why it’s happening in the first place. If you were to go to an acupuncturist, they would first diagnose your heartburn as having one of a couple of different causes. You may have something called a Liver and Stomach disharmony, in which stress and emotional upsets are causing or aggravating your symptoms. You might also be diagnosed with something called Food Stagnation, where large meals or hard to digest food is just sitting in your stomach and repeating upwards. Or you may have Stomach Heat, in which your stomach is inflamed and irritated.
Because not all heartburn is created equal in Chinese medicine, any treatment you receive is based on your specific symptoms and underlying pattern. Your acupuncturist is likely to combine acupuncture with food therapy and a Chinese herbal formula for best results.
In the meantime, there are some steps that you can take at home to help reduce your symptoms, including:
- Avoid foods that you know aggravate your heartburn. Common offenders are onions, alcohol, citrus fruits, tomatoes, mint, spicy foods, and very rich or fatty foods. Not sure which foods are the culprits? Keeping a food and symptoms diary for a couple of weeks will help you identify your personal triggers.
- Eat smaller meals because they’re easier to digest.
- Wait a couple of hours after eating before you go to bed. Gravity is your enemy when it comes to heartburn. If your symptoms are really bad at night, try elevating your head while you sleep.
- Take the time to eat slowly. Nothing spells heartburn quicker than bolting your food on the run.
- Increase your fiber intake. While fiber may seem unrelated to heartburn, it actually keeps food moving along throughout your digestive tract. In addition, researchers have found a connection between heartburn and constipation, which fiber helps to alleviate.
- Stress makes everything worse, and heartburn is no exception. Do whatever it takes to get the stress in your life under control. While this is easier said than done, acupuncture can help; it actually switches up your brain chemistry to increase the circulation of calming and feel-good chemicals. So try a little acupuncture both for your stress and your heartburn. Your digestion will thank you.
With the help of acupuncture, Chinese medicine, and at-home care, your heartburn can be a thing of the past. It’s time to rekindle your love of good food without having to worry about heartburn symptoms afterward.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.