Acid reflux is big business for the pharmaceutical industry considering that nearly 7% of the US population reaches for prescription and over-the-counter medications to relieve their symptoms. Insurance companies have even realized the billion dollar expense associated with treating acid reflux symptoms and have dramatically reduced their coverage of prescriptive medications forcing patients to purchase these medication ‘band-aids’ over-the-counter and out of their own pockets.
Most physicians treat acid reflux the only way we were taught in medical school. This is basically the same way the last several generations of doctors were taught…if someone has acid reflux, it must mean that they have TOO MUCH stomach acid. That’s probably what you have been told but there is another whole side of this hot story. In the world of functional medicine, acid reflux is many times a sign of TOO LITTLE stomach acid! When acid levels are too low, the condition is called hypochlorhydria (hypo = low, chlorhydria=hydrochloric acid). How crazy is it that acid could come up into your esophagus and throat because there is TOO LITTLE of it?
Well, here comes the science facts… (1) the body produces its own hydrochloric acid (and it takes a bunch of energy to make it) (2) as we age, our bodies slow down overall and we tend to produce ‘less’ of everything- hormones, muscle, STOMACH ACID, etc. (3) the majority of people who suffer from acid reflux are over the age of 50. So, how could it be that as we age, we make less stomach acid but have so many people suffering from ‘too much acid’ problems like GERD? The simple answer: it doesn’t. We make less hydrochloric acid as we age. This low acid state makes the valve between the stomach and esophagus open up too quick (for reasons too long for this post, but trust me), the acid shoots up because the trap door is open and you experience your heartburn. Said simpler with an analogy, the acid (air conditioned air) is escaping because someone left the door open, not because the your acid (air conditioned air) all of sudden got so strong that it flew the door open and escaped out.
To really throw you off, the most popular medications used for acid reflux called proton pump inhibitors (PPI) actually lower the low acid levels even more. This might help temporarily because the drug really dropped the stomach acid level, but the problem now is that there is too little acid left to digest the food, to kill the bacteria on the food, to activate your digestive enzymes, and do the many other vital functions of proper amounts of stomach acid.
Said more medically, by taking a PPI, we’re stopping the body from beginning the appropriate digestion of food. If this happens, food enters the small intestine in a less broken down form than it should. The small intestine is not prepared for food in this form and is not always able to fully utilize these undigested foods (btw, animal protein tends to be a big culprit). It gets worse as it goes downstream. The undigested food in the small intestine can trigger constipation, intestinal pain, severe bloating, and also can feed unhealthy bacteria and yeast leading to intestinal infections. What a mess and all could have been remedied with the right diagnosis!
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, visit our Education Beyond Medication online medical community, LivingWellnessUniversity.com to watch the following Dr. Saxena Speaks! educational videos which also relate to this topic: