Gastroesophageal reflux disease is one of the most common conditions affecting Americans today, with acid-stopping medications like Astra Zeneca’s Nexium accounting for more than $5 billion in sales in 2009.
But medications are not without risks. According to a 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, acid-stopping drugs, taken for even a year at high doses, are associated with an increased risk of hip fracture.
So what are consumers to do when faced with the prospect of either taking a medication or leaving their symptoms left untreated? Why not learn more about what you can do to prevent these symptoms in the first place.
Why does acid back up?
When stomach contents such as acid, bile and food back up into the esophagus, they can cause burning and irritation. Normally, a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter prevents this from happening, but when it malfunctions, stomach contents can leak into the esophagus. Factors like smoking, obesity, pregnancy and an overfull stomach can make the situation worse.
When food enters the stomach, it mixes with gastric acid, made largely of hydrochloric acid, which plays a key digestive role by breaking down proteins, activating digestive enzymes and helping the body to absorb calcium. It also supports immune function by killing harmful bacteria before they can cause an infection.
Under normal circumstances, the stomach itself is protected from this harsh acid by the secretion of a thick, protective mucus layer. On the whole, stomach acid is good and is critical in maintaining overall health.
Too little acid can allow bacteria to flourish and burrow into the stomach wall, creating one the most common types of gastric and duodenal ulcers. Too little acid can also create symptoms of bloating and gas as partially digested food lingers in the stomach or enters the small intestine, where bacteria are required to further break it down.
and acid reflux
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) looks at digestion a bit differently, assigning most digestive functions to the spleen and viewing the stomach as simply a vessel for food. The spleen’s function includes the digestive role of the pancreas, stomach and duodenum (part of the small intestine). A condition like acid reflux will typically be assigned to spleen weakness but may also include a diagnosis of “stomach fire,” a term ascribed to increased acid production.
In allopathic medicine, acid reflux may be treated with acid-blocking medications, but in TCM, there may be as many as six different diagnoses, each with unique protocols to address both the symptoms and underlying cause.
Tips for a healthy
• Chew your food – enzymes in the mouth begin the digestive process.
• Limit liquid intake with meals – it dilutes the potency of stomach acid.
• Eat smaller meals – overeating makes conditions worse.
• Limit stress – increased cortisol levels can thin the protective stomach lining.
Left untreated, acid reflux can lead to scarring and narrowing of the esophagus and to a risk of developing esophageal cancer. If acid reaches the larynx, it can lead to symptoms like a cough, asthma or a sore throat.
A primary-care physician or gastroenterologist can perform any necessary tests, give you the information you need and prescribe the appropriate medication. You may also want to seek alternative treatment approaches for digestive issues. Find a qualified alternative practitioner by asking friends or your physician for a referral.
Ted Ray, L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist in private practice in Mountain View and Woodside. He earned a master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco and an undergraduate degree in agribusiness from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. For more information, call 564-9002 or visit www.peninsulaacupuncture.com.