Almost everyone has a sour taste in their mouth once in a while, though for some people this is a more common occurrence. We’ve been inundated with advertisements telling us that we need to take medication to relieve the discomfort and prevent worse things from happening.

Reflux is a phenomenon that can show up with a sour taste (which can actually be absent), with pain in the chest (heartburn), sore throat, coughing, and other symptoms. Some people are so-called silent refluxers and have no apparent symptoms. Reflux is usually not caused by a production of too much stomach acid but by a dysfunction in the muscular ring at the entrance to your stomach, the esophageal sphincter. This valve may allow the upward flow of stomach contents into the esophagus where the lining of this tube is not designed to tolerate the low pH your stomach produces to sanitize and predigest foods. Regular exposure of this lining to stomach acid can cause inflammation and tissue damage.

Common treatments for GERD

Unfortunately, many people with occasional or frequent heartburn are diagnosed with (or self-diagnose) gastro-esophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD, and begin taking blockbuster drugs rather than investigating root causes and making useful changes to their routines. As many as one in four North Americans are estimated to regularly use antacids. Let’s take a look at these medications, how they work, and especially what their risks are, before we look at natural strategies to reduce uncomfortable symptoms of reflux and heal your upper digestive tract.

Precursors to today’s acid-blocking drugs appeared in the mid-seventies and quickly became bestselling prescription drugs. In the eighties pharma companies introduced a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) called omeprazole under the brand name Prilosec. Other similar drugs soon followed. Prevacid, Protonix, Aciphex and Nexium became household names over the years, and people often take them with a rather casual attitude.

These drugs are approved for the treatment of gastric ulcers, erosive esophagitis and bleeding of the stomach caused by pain medications like NSAIDs. They’re also approved for GERD but, in reality, don’t seem to work for the nonerosive type. But their long list of problematic side-effects should give you pause and make you wonder if certain lifestyle changes may not be preferable. PPI’s have not been approved for longterm treatment of GERD or studied in older patients. They don’t work for everyone and can lose their effectiveness over time. It is often exceedingly difficult to discontinue their use, and symptoms tend to return with a vengeance. Long-term use of these medications plays a role in some serious infections (including Clostridium difficile), certain cancers, fractures, vitamin (esp. vitamin B12) and mineral deficiencies, as well as heart attacks and dementia. Stomach acid is designed to kill bacteria we ingest. It also prepares food for further digestion in the small intestine, where many nutrients are extracted and absorbed.

As we get older our esophageal sphincter often becomes weaker, so reflux is more common in the elderly. But GERD is not so clearly defined, and using these drugs often does more harm than good. For example, reflux is about twice as common in overweight people, esp. where the extra weight is held in the middle, so-called central obesity. Studies have revealed that antacids dramatically disturb your healthy gut flora. In addition, PPI’s have not been shown to provide much benefit for more than four weeks but many, many people take these medications for months or years on end. In some studies, people without symptoms who took PPI’s for several weeks ended up developing symptoms of GERD. Now that’s a powerful effect!

Another huge problem with proton pump inhibitors is that they can interfere with the effectiveness of other medications because of their effect on liver function. This is especially true for life-saving drugs like anticoagulants. You can develop a wide range of problems associated with mineral malabsorption including iron-deficiency anemia. The list of drugs that are affected by PPI’s is long and wide-ranging. It includes even medications you may be taking for anxiety and depression.

Doctors are rethinking the conventional approach

Are you ready for some good news? Here are some strategies widely recommended by forward-looking conventionally trained doctors and by practitioners of natural medicines.

Have your last meal at least three hours before bedtime, eat smaller meals, avoid spicy foods, and don’t engage in vigorous exercise on a full stomach. Consider keeping a diary to track down which foods are particularly hard for you to digest and experiment with food preparation as well. Everyone has their personal culprits, but for many people highly acidic foods can exacerbate the problem. Eliminate processed foods from your diet and return to natural food sources humans used to live on back in the day. If you tolerate dairy, try cultured buttermilk or kefir for symptom relief.

Other things to eliminate include smoking, consumption of alcohol, coffee, fried foods, and citrus. Sometimes onions, garlic or tomatoes don’t sit right with people. If you’ve accumulated extra pounds in your midsection, weight loss can bring relief. Stress may contribute to your indigestion.

Traditional approaches

In many traditional cultures, herbal bitters are used as a digestive aid, and even though there is limited randomized controlled research into their usefulness, we know based on their long use and prevalence across cultures that they have a place in helping digestion. We also have evidence that certain supplements like melatonin and tryptophan, in combination with certain vitamins, can bring relief from uncomfortable heartburn and help you restore natural stomach functioning.

We can use acupuncture and Chinese herbal prescriptions to relieve heartburn and improve digestive function as well. Homeopathic medicines are another safe option for symptom relief. These therapies may also affect your overall well-being positively.

Getting off the medications

And if you would like to discontinue your use of PPI’s, look for a physician who can support you during this process because tapering down your dosage over time is almost always necessary to allow your stomach to recover and prevent a worsening of your symptoms.

© 2023 Christiane Siebert