“Oh my aching tummy!”
Sound familiar? In North America, antacids are a multibillion dollar business. I’d estimate that 50 percent of the patients who come to see me complain of digestive problems. If you have heartburn or indigestion, it didn’t just occur overnight – it takes years of eating poorly and experiencing too much stress to bring these conditions about.
When you eat a meal, you should feel good afterwards but too often that is not the case. You may have the symptoms of heartburn and indigestion, which are a fullness of the stomach, gas or possibly pain either in the mid-chest or the stomach area. You may bloat after eating or perhaps you just don’t feel good. So perhaps you pop an antacid pill to make the pain go away.
These symptoms can have a variety of causes. It could be poor eating habits like nibbling during the day and then having one big meal at night; it could be that you don’t have enough digestive enzymes because as we age, our bodies produce fewer of them; it could be food allergies or it could be stress.
If the heartburn is chronic, it may be a hiatus hernia, which is an “outpooching” of the stomach above the diaphragm where the stomach actually goes through the valve and into the esophagus area. Antacids work and are the common treatment for heartburn but they also have many, many disadvantages.
The normal stomach pH is 1.5 to 2.5 and it’s within that range for a good reason. The stomach is the first line of defense against harmful bacteria in our food and is the major organ of digestion. If you raise the pH of the stomach with antacids, you’re going to have poor digestion of proteins and your immune system defenses will be lowered. It also sets up your stomach for overgrowths of bacteria like helicobacter pylori, which causes ulcers.
Happily there are many ways of treating these symptoms. First, eat smaller meals and lower your consumption of fats, sugars, and caffeine – especially caffeine. More than one cup of coffee can cause heartburn and for some even that one cup can cause stomach distress. Find out if you’re sensitive to any foods. You may need to take digestive enzymes, which help by pre-digesting your food and taking the load off the stomach and liver.
A herb that’s excellent for digestive healing is deglycyrrhizinated licorice root. It increases the quality and quantity of the protective substances that line the intestinal tract. It also improves the blood supply to the intestinal tract as well as soothing the tissues. Licorice root is contraindicated in people with high blood pressure but when it’s deglycyrrhizinated those side effects are nullified.
These are all good physical fixes, however you can’t talk about indigestion without addressing stress. When your body is stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is on overload and the first thing it does is shut down the digestive system because all your energy and blood is going to go to your muscles and brain in preparation for fight or flight.
If you want a healthy digestive system, you have to practice stress reduction techniques a few times per day. Deep, abdominal breathing is terrific for relaxing that area and allowing the digestive process to begin.
Indigestion and heartburn are symptomatic of how you’re eating and what you’re eating. It can be cured.
Dr. Paulette Roscoe is a naturopathic physician who practices in Nanaimo.