Heartburn and GERD – How Conventional Medicine has it Backwards - Integrative Brain and Body

Heartburn and GERD – How Conventional Medicine has it Backwards

Without question heartburn or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is the most common gastrointestinal complaint in the United States. With up 60 percent of the population experiencing symptoms of GERD at least once during the year (1), surely most people have experienced (or know someone who experienced) the symptoms of heartburn.

The most common symptoms of heartburn include:

  • Burning/Pain that begins in the chest and can move upward
  • Fullness or Bloating after meals (Food tends to sit in stomach)
  • Feeling that food is coming back into the throat/mouth
  • Acidic or bitter taste on the back of tongue
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Chronic cough/sore throat
  • Aggravation of symptoms when lying down

While it’s not uncommon to experience the burning of GERD at least once a year, there is a population of people who get the symptoms weekly. It has been estimated that 20 – 30 percent of the US population experiences heartburn on a weekly basis. Data collected more than a decade ago (2) looked at GERD prevalence from 1998 to 2005 and found that the numbers had increased 216% during that seven year time span. This number is likely going to continue to rise. A more recent study confirms that with the increase in prevalence of GERD, the number of Proton Pump inhibitors prescribed for heartburn has doubled in the last 8 years (3). Keep in mind that this doesn’t account for the over the counter medications like: Prilosec, Nexium, Zantac, etc.

“I can’t believe I ate that whole thing.”

Oh we’ve all heard that before…and we’ve all seen that before! We all know of the popular commercials with anti-acids or even the ones for Proton pump inhibitors. All you need to do is turn on your TV and you’ll probably see Larry the Cable Guy or some other celebrity advertising for some popular proton pump inhibitor. They will all claim that their product helps to lower stomach acidity and makes them have “zero heartburn!” or “neutralizes stomach acid on contact!” While this is in fact true and actually works surprisingly well for heartburn, it may not be the best way to approach the problem. The problem lies in the conventional way of thinking about heartburn.

Most people believe that heartburn is caused by too much stomach acidity, while recent data is proving that statement to be untrue. According to this review (1), GERD is most often diagnosed between the ages of 45 – 64. Another review published this graph (4), confirming that GERD disease increases which age.

“So we have more incidences of heartburn when were older, what does that have to do with too little stomach acid?”

Well if heartburn is caused by too much stomach acid and we see more incidences of it when we are older then we should see large amounts of stomach acid in the older population, right? If the current theory held true you would say yes. However, we see the exact opposite. In a popular book on the subject, “Why Stomach Acid is Good for You” by Dr. John Wright (5), there is a graph (6) that shows stomach acid decreasing with age. When you superimpose both graphs together (4,6) you can clearly see the negative correlation between stomach acidity with age. Heartburn seems to rise when stomach acid creeps down below a certain threshold.

On top of this, when people who have an acid inhibiting infection in their stomach (A bug called H. Pylori) we tend to see an increase in esophageal reflux (7).


“In 24 years of nutritionally oriented practice, I’ve worked with thousands of individuals who’ve found the cause of their heartburn and indigestion to be low stomach acidity. In nearly all of these folks, symptoms have been relieved and digestion improved when they’ve taken supplemental hydrochloric acid and pepsin capsules. (Certainly it would be preferable that our stomach production of hydrochloric acid and pepsin be restored on its own, but a reliable way to do this hasn’t been found.)”

– Dr. Jonathan Wright – #

I find this statement to be true with the majority of patients I have seen at our clinic. Most of our patients will see a change in their gastroesophageal reflux within a matter of days to a couple of weeks when given digestive enzyme support.

“That’s fine and all, but my proton pump inhibitors have helped my heartburn tremendously. Why would I want to change that?”

I am not doubting that your medication has helped you. In fact, they work tremendously well at diminishing heartburn symptoms. That is why they are so popular. But what most people don’t realize is that diminishing your stomach acid comes at a cost – the health of the rest of your body. Most of the over the counter products recommend to not continue their product longer than 14 days without speaking to a doctor. I have seen people on these things for years! There is strong evidence that shows extended use of stomach acid lowering medication like proton pump inhibitors can cause the following:

  • Magnesium Deficiency (8, 9, 12, 14, 17)
  • Heart Arrhythmias (8)
  • Iron Deficiency, that’s unresponsive to supplementation (10)
  • Increased Risk for Gut Infections (11, 12, 17)
  • Increased Risk for Pneumonia (12)
  • Increased Risk for osteoporosis, Hip fractures and other fractures (12, 17)
  • Vitamin B12 Deficiency (12, 13, 16, 17)
  • Electrolyte Deficiency (14)
  • Increased Risk for seizures (14)
  • Increased Risk for Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (15)
  • Increased Risk for Gastric Carnioid Tumors, Polyps, and Cancer (17)
  • Increased Risk for infections outside the GI Tract (17)
  • Increased Risk for Dementia (18)
  • Increased Risk for Chronic Kidney Disease (19)

So how does decreasing stomach acidity cause all of these problems?

It’s simple. Our stomach is vital to the digestion and absorption of minerals, vitamins and nutrients that our body needs to stay healthy. When we lose those nutrients slowly overtime our bodies begin to break down. Our stomach acidity does more than just help with the absorption of nutrients. In the next article we will cover the reasons why more stomach acidity decreases GERD and is also the first step in healthy gastrointestinal function.

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Known for their successful treatment of mystery illnesses, Dr. Scott Beyer and Dr. Brianne Holmes combine an integrative, functional medicine and functional neurology  approach with the appropriate lab testing.

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