Doctors might refer to it as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD for short. If you suffer from heartburn, you more than likely know it as acid reflux. This is when the acidic liquid content of the stomach regurgitates into the esophagus causing a burning sensation. This eventually leads to inflammation of the esophagus lining and can cause severe damage.
It is commonly believed that acidic foods cause heartburn. Certainly, there is correlation between that burning sensation and consumption of acidic food or liquid such as coffee, tomatoes, certain fruit juices, chocolate or fatty and spicy foods. This association makes acid reducing medications such as proton pump inhibitors (a.k.a. Prilosec, Nexium, Prevocid, etc.) among the top ten prescribed medications in the United States. While these medications may temporarily extinguish the fire, they are merely treating the symptom, not the true cause of heartburn. Furthermore, long term studies reveal a host of dangers associated with these medications including increased risk of heart attacks, kidney damage, and cognitive impairment.
What is the true underlying cause of GERD? Let’s start answering this question by looking at anatomy. The stomach and the esophagus are separated by a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The purpose of a healthy LES is to hold back the acidic fluid of the stomach. If you are experiencing a burning sensation between your mid and upper chest, your LES is not functioning properly. Beyond a burning sensation, symptoms that accompany LES dysfunction may include coughing, asthma, chronic bronchitis, nausea, sore throat and a change in your voice.
There are several factors that may contribute to a dysfunctional LES and (surprise!) too much stomach acid is not one of them. Conversely, not enough acid in the stomach is the major culprit. Plentiful stomach acid is required for the following functions:
• To kill pathogenic bacteria and yeast normally present in food.
• To stimulate the pancreas and small intestines to secrete digestive enzymes to further breakdown proteins, fats, and carbohydrates into absorbable nutrients.
• To signal the pyloric valve to open allowing food to move downward into the intestines.
Essentially, insufficient stomach acid causes potentially pathogen laden food to sit in the stomach longer. Slow gastric emptying allows the food to ferment in the stomach and produce gas and abdominal pressure. This pressure forces the LES open allowing food to move upward into the esophagus.
By now, after reading the above information, you may be ready to learn how acupuncture can help. Previous posts have focused on acupuncture’s ability to regulate hormonal cascades through neurotransmitters. This same neurological effect treats GERD. Acupuncture studies show that stimulation of specific points help increase gastric secretions, relax the pyloric sphincter, and restore proper function to the LES.
Of course, acupuncture alone is not the full answer to curing GERD. Stress management and dietary changes are integral to improving acid reflux symptoms. Emotional stress keeps the nervous system in “fight or flight” mode. In a stressed state, our body diverts blood away from the stomach to the large muscles so we can fight or flee a threat. Consequently, food ferments in the stomach producing that dreaded abdominal pressure. Acupuncture’s ability to switch off the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response allows the body to go into the “rest and digest” parasympathetic mode.
Then there is diet. Would you ever imagine that the heartburn you feel after a plate of pasta bolognese is caused by the pasta and not the tomato sauce? Over consumption of difficult-to-digest carbohydrates can overfeed gut bacteria, cause excess gas and pressure in your intestines. The pressure then forces the LES to open resulting in escaped stomach acid into the esophagus. Adoption of a paleo type diet can be extremely beneficial to those suffering from GERD.
Once I assess and arrive at a diagnosis, I will zero in on an appropriate therapy plan primarily based on acupuncture points. We will most likely then discuss a stress management plan and dietary modifications.
Both the World Health Organization and the National Institutes for Health point to acupuncture as an effective means of treating more than just acid reflux. A multitude of digestive disorders ranging from food allergies to irritable bowel syndrome respond favorably to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). If you are experiencing heartburn or any other digestive problem schedule an appointment today.