To many Americans, heart burn and acid reflux are a daily problem.   A quick fix is to pop an antacid – a remedy that takes care of symptoms but is not necessarily a good solution.  Antacid use in the United States is pervasive - three billion dollars are spent annually on over-the-counter types alone, according to the American Pharmacists Association.

It has been found that antacids can prevent the absorption of nutrients like B vitamins and iron, and they can cause an overgrowth of bacteria, compromise the immune system and increase the risks for cancer.

A report was issued by the FDA in 2010 warning against prolonged use of a class of antacid drugs called proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs), like Nexium.  Prior to this warning being released, it was not uncommon to find people who had been consistently taking a PPI for two decades.  Regular use of these drugs over time has been shown to increase the risks for bone fracture, dementia and infection.

Brenda Watson, the author of a book on digestive health appropriately called “Gut Solutions” states, "People take antacids to lower the amount of acid in their stomach but many are misdiagnosing themselves and shouldn't be taking antacids at all.  Ninety percent of people with heartburn or acid reflux symptoms actually don't have enough acid in their stomach."

This condition is known as hypochlorhydria, which is fairly common as the production of acid in the stomach begins to decline around age 35.  Many doctors believe that half of the population will develop hypochlorhydria.  Some symptoms include:

  • Reduced energy level
  • Increased appetite
  • Gas and bloating
  • Enlarged capillaries in the cheeks and nose
  • Bad breath

Hypochlorhydria is a concern according to Watson because, “Many doctors don't test for it or know how to treat it, so acid blocking medications are being over-prescribed in the same way antibiotics have been."

There are some ways to naturally treat heartburn and indigestion which are based on the elimination of bacterial overgrowth and the restoration of stomach acid.  A diet that is high in carbohydrates can cause bacterial overgrowth, so reducing the consumption of carbohydrates can help.

A study at Duke University on five people with severe gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD) showed that the patients were completely free of symptoms within one week of adopting a low-carbohydrate diet (less than 20 grams daily).

Some experts believe it is the “type” of carbohydrates consumed rather than the amount that is the problem.  They recommend the replacement of long-chain carbohydrates (grains, legumes and starchy vegetables) with short-chain carbohydrates like fruits and non-starchy root vegetables (rutabaga, turnips, winter squash and celery root).

Consumption of bitter herbs (or bitters) is another way to naturally increase stomach acid.  These have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years to treat digestive problems.  Research has confirmed the ability of bitters to improve the flow of digestive juices including hydrochloric acid, bile, gastrin, pepsin and pancreatic enzymes.  These bitters include:

• Barberry bark
• Caraway
• Dandelion
• Fennel
• Gentian root
• Ginger
• Hops
• Milk thistle
• Peppermint
• Wormwood

A licensed herbalist can prescribe a formula that is specific to your particular digestive problem.

Finally, research has demonstrated the effectiveness of probiotics (beneficial bacteria) in treating a variety of gastrointestinal conditions.  As overgrowth of bacteria is a major cause of heartburn and GERD, the restoration of balance is essential.  The consumption of probiotics helps to restore a healthy bacterial balance.  Try fermented foods like yogurt and kefir or a probiotic supplement, available through natural supplement websites.

When it comes to indigestion and heartburn, a natural approach is always best.  However, there are some instances when natural treatment may not be enough, as in the case of tissue damage in the esophagus.  Therefore, if you are experiencing regular indigestion and heartburn, it is wise to consult with your health care provider.