How to Recognize and Treat Upset Stomach and Heartburn

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July 30, 2003 | 69,452 views

By Dr. Joseph Mercola with Rachael Droege

Millions of people suffer from Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), which is sometimes referred to as reflux or reflux esophagitis. Although almost everyone experiences reflux at some time--it occurs when acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus--some people experience it frequently and severely.

About 40 million Americans suffer from frequent heartburn, the most common symptom of GERD, which usually occurs after a meal. Regurgitation of gastric acid or sour contents into the mouth, difficult or painful swallowing and chest pain can also occur. Acid may also be regurgitated into the lungs, which can result in asthma, coughing, wheezing and hoarseness, and if acid reaches the mouth it can dissolve teeth enamel.

Fortunately, the treatment of GERD is one of the easiest issues I resolve in my clinical practice. Routinely maintaining the healthy eating program in my book, The No-Grain Diet, and drinking up to one gallon of pure water per day combined with high doses of a good quality probiotic (beneficial bacteria), is enough to restore normal stomach function in the vast majority of patients. Normally you will want to drink enough water to keep your urine a light yellow color. However, when you have acid reflux or ulcer disease, larger amounts of water may be necessary to dilute the acid and normalize the pH in your stomach.

Elimination of sugar is also a major effective strategy that aids healing. If you are overweight the elimination of most grains will also be helpful by lowering insulin levels.

People with GERD are often warned against eating fatty foods, but studies have shown that it is actually too many calories--not too much fat--that results in stomach upset, so I don’t typically recommend that patients with GERD follow a strictly low-fat diet. Part of the reason why a low-fat diet is destined to be a disaster is that it tends to be high in grains. High-grain diets will cause your insulin levels to elevate, which in turn will cause a whole domino series of biochemical interactions that will push a person away from health.

High insulin levels are associated with a wide variety of health problems such as:

Even if these conditions are not expressed clinically they may have sub-threshold effects, which worsen the GERD and ulcer conditions. It is also believed that an infection called H. pylori may cause ulcers. High insulin levels will cause disruption of the immune system and decrease your ability to fight this infection.

Adequate vitamin D intake is also an important variable for stomach health. Normally, sunshine is the ideal source for vitamin D, but over half the United States does not have adequate sources of sunshine for a large percentage of the year, so you may need to supplement your diet. Vitamin D3 (not vitamin D2, which is synthetic) is the preferred form.

An excellent source of vitamin D is cod liver oil, which will also provide you with beneficial omega-3s. I recommend krill oil.

Garlic is also important for stomach health, and you should be eating it every day. It is important to note that the garlic MUST be fresh. The active ingredient is destroyed within several hours of smashing the garlic. Garlic pills are virtually worthless and should not be used. When you use the garlic, it is important to compress the garlic with a spoon prior to swallowing it if you are not going to juice it. If you swallow the clove intact you will not convert the allicin to its active ingredient. One problem, of course, is the smell, but most people can tolerate a few cloves a day. If you develop a "socially offensive" odor, then decrease the volume of garlic slightly until there is no odor present.

With these inexpensive, safe and extremely effective natural solutions out there, it’s unfortunate that so many people are being prescribed drugs for heartburn. Drugs for stomach and upper digestive system problems are among the largest selling medicines in the country, and sales amount to billions of dollars per year. Although the drugs--proton pump inhibitors like Prevacid, Prilosec and Nexium and the H2 blocker agents like Tagament, Pepcid and Zantac--do provide relief for this problem, they are true prescriptions for disaster, and they seriously impair your digestion.

One of the problems with these drugs is that they significantly reduce the amount of acid in your stomach, thus affecting your ability to properly digest food. Reduction of acid in the stomach also diminishes your primary defense mechanism for food-borne infections, thereby increasing your risk of food poisoning.

Additionally, if you don't digest and absorb your food properly you will not only increase your risk of stomach atrophy but also nearly every other chronic degenerative disease.

These drugs are touted as a miracle cure for heartburn for millions of people and are major moneymakers for the drug companies. Consider the mass marketing tactics of Prilosec, the original "Purple Pill" for heartburn that became the world’s best-selling prescription drug, the number one medication prescribed for seniors, and made profits of $6 billion a year.

When the patent on Prilosec expired, the drug’s manufacturer, AstraZeneca, started a half-a-billion-dollar marketing campaign to move consumers onto their next costly "Purple Pill," Nexium. They even hired 1,300 sales reps just to promote the new drug.

Although studies showed, and many experts agreed, that Nexium was hardly more effective than the original pill, AstraZeneca was able to successfully transfer 42 percent of patients on Prilosec to Nexium. As a consumer it’s important that you are aware of when a drug is truly a necessity, and when it is simply a tool to increase drug companies’ profits.

Most people ignore that heartburn is an important clue from their body that something is off kilter and rely on these drugs to suppress the symptoms. But covering up the symptoms will not solve the underlying problem, and if you don’t address the cause you will likely end up with more serious problems down the road.