Heartburn: A Doctor's Perspective
A friend (I'll call her Sandy) just emailed that she spent 10 hours in the
Emergency Department yesterday with chest pain. Her chest felt totally
constricted and she couldn't breathe. It began, she said, after a siege of
heartburn in the morning and she said she hadn't lifted anything that morning.
Before she went to the hospital Sandy tried taking 2 charcoal tablets then aloe
vera gel a few hours later. But it got so bad she has to get the pain checked
out. Fortunately her EKG, blood work, CT scan and chest X-ray ruled everything
else out. She said her experience really baffled her and she wanted to
understand why it happened. Sandy asked me if it was possible for heartburn to
cause severe chest pain. The short answer to Sandy's question is yes. Now let
me explain why.
Heartburn is also called gastro esophageal reflux disease (GERD). I rebel
against calling heartburn GERD. I think drug companies invented GERD so they
could unleash a whole line of expensive stomach acid-killing drugs instead of
people using inexpensive heartburn remedies like Milk of Magnesium or Tums.
The esophagus and stomach are separated by a protective muscular sphincter. If
for some reason that sphincter is weakened, acidic stomach contents can be
pushed up into the esophagus, causing burning pain. I guess it's called
"heartburn" because the area of pain lies close to the heart. Heartburn can be
severe enough to be misdiagnosed as angina or a heart attack. When stomach acid
reaches the esophagus it can trigger nerve endings that encircle the chest. Our
stomach lining is designed to handle very strong digestive acid, but the
esophagus is not. Even something as simple as a large meal can stretch the
esophageal sphincter and allow a reflux of food mixed with acid. These symptoms
are worse if you lie down after a large meal. Small frequent meals move out of
the stomach quickly and don't cause reflux.
The substances most likely to relax the esophageal sphincter and cause reflux
are alcohol, coffee, tomatoes and tobacco. Physical factors such as bending
forward while lifting (instead of bending at the knees), overdoing sit-ups, or
going to bed shortly after eating can also initiate symptoms of reflux. When
you are under stress, the stomach and abdomen tend to get tense, which can lock
the diaphragm in place so that the breathing is shallow and the stomach can
become elevated. This can lead to stomach spasm, which can mimic a hiatus
hernia and create problems with digestion.
The medical treatment for heartburn is over-the-counter antacids or prescription
acid blockers. Antacids like Milk of Magnesium and Tums coat the lower
esophagus and stomach and neutralize stomach acid. However, they only offer
symptomatic relief; they do not get to the root of the problem. They also
greatly interfere with digestion by neutralizing the necessary gastric acids.
If your food does not break down properly, it cannot be absorbed and your
health will suffer. Also, intestinal bacteria and yeast feed off this
undigested food causing fermentation, gas, and bloating. The proton pump
inhibitors like Nexium and Prilosec not only impede digestion, they also
increase the risk of hip fracture, pneumonia, and clostridia infection in
users. They should be used with extreme caution or not at all.
The natural treatment of heartburn begins with the diet. But unfortunately most
doctors won't give you that advice. The majority of people in Western society
are eating processed food. This food is dead, it has no living enzymes. And
it's also laced with chemical preservatives. There are videos on YouTube of
immortal McDonald's burgers that never decompose, even after several years!
Think what that means to your body. Eating food that can never be broken down.
The simple recommendations to eat small meals of non processed food; chew your
food well (about 30 times per bite); and avoid drinking cold water with meals
may be all you need to do. If that doesn't give you enough relief, be sure and
avoid alcohol, coffee, tomatoes, and tobacco. When I explained this to Sandy,
she suddenly remembered that she had two cups of coffee before her heartburn
began. That helped her understand why she had developed heartburn in the first
place because coffee had given her problems in the past. You can also use an
old time digestive tonic -- apple cider vinegar. The directions are to mix 1
teaspoon of vinegar in 4 ounces of water and sip throughout a meal.
If after following the above recommendations you still require a supplement DGL
licorice is the one you want. DGL stands for deglycyrrhizinated licorice. It's
the most potent treatment for heartburn that I know. It's as effective as
powerful prescription medications. Chew one or two wafers twenty minutes before
a meal. DGL works by strengthening the stomach mucosal lining and enhancing
production of mucin, which protects the stomach against gastric acid.
Dr. Carolyn Dean is a medical doctor and naturopathic doctor. She has been in
the forefront of the natural medicine revolution for over 30 years. Dr. Dean is
the author / coauthor of 22 health books (print and eBooks) including The
Magnesium Miracle, IBS for Dummies, IBS Cookbook for Dummies, The Yeast
Connection and Women's Health, Future Health Now Encyclopedia, Death by Modern
Medicine, Everything Alzheimers, and Hormone Balance. Dr. Dean is Medical
Director of the Medical Anti-Aging Clinic and Pharmacy in Dubai Health Care
City and Medical Director of the Nutritional Magnesium Association. Dr. Dean
has a free newsletter and a valuable online 2-year wellness program called
Future Health Now! and a telephone consulting practice. Find out more at