Acid Reflux Home Remedies

Have you seen those commercials with the funny, slightly corpulent (more on this later) guy with an engaging Southern accent who takes the acid reflux pill daily for “zero heartburn” and wants you to do the same while you ignore the small print at the bottom of the screen? He seems so endearing that you want to give him a hug and invite him over for dinner, beers, football, and arm wrestling. Don’t be charmed, though. Acid reflux drugs might as well be crack cocaine or heroin. They work so well and so quickly that you can become addicted to them, but you shouldn’t take them long term.

Acid reflux drugs increase the risk of vitamin B12 and magnesium deficiencies, which can (in rare cases) cause muscle spasms and irregular heartbeats. They can also reduce the absorption of iron and increase the risk of pneumonia, bone loss, fractures, and a nasty bacterial infection (Clostridium difficile) that can cause terrible diarrhea and lead to hospitalization or worse.

Some people who quit these drugs after becoming dependent on them develop higher levels of gastric acid, which then requires another prescription and leads to further dependency! I have also personally seen several cases of people taking acid reflux medications long term who have had false positive tests for a rare cancer marker for neuroendocrine/pancreatic tumors.

Do you get my not-so-subtle drift here? Prescription and over-the-counter acid reducers work very well and are very necessary in some cases, but too many people are becoming reliant on them. In most cases, you should take the lowest dose for the shortest period of time. In fact, based on multiple studies, 75 percent of users could reduce their dosage or stop taking these pills altogether if they made some heart-healthy lifestyle changes (like losing weight, increasing fiber intake, and reducing stress).

What is Acid Reflux?

Acid reflux occurs when some of the stomach’s acidic contents move up into the esophagus (some people refer to this as heartburn, but that’s only one symptom). It can be caused by weight gain, lifestyle changes, genetics, and medications (antibiotics, antidepressants, cancer treatments, steroid or immune-suppressing drugs, OTC and prescription pain drugs, and long-term antacid use). Regardless, the acid irritates, inflames, and erodes the esophageal lining over time, which can increase your risk of esophageal cancer.

Chronic acid reflux, where it occurs several times weekly or starts to interfere with everyday life, is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. In the United States, approximately 20 percent of the adult population experiences GERD weekly.

In addition to a burning sensation in your chest (heartburn), symptoms also include a sour taste, regurgitated food in the back of your mouth, indigestion, and trouble swallowing. Some people don’t realize they’re experiencing acid reflux because their symptoms seem unrelated, but a chronic cough, wheezing, and even mild chest pain (especially while lying down at night) can be signs of GERD.

One thing to keep in mind is that stomach acid is part of your immune system; it kills foreign microorganisms on contact. It’s also critical for breaking down food so your intestines can absorb all the nutrients. Now you can see why shutting down acid production for a long period of time increases the risk of several problems.

Acid Reflux Home Remedies

1. Calcium carbonate 500 milligrams once or twice a day

Products that contain calcium carbonate— like Tums, Rolaids, and even Os-Cal —can relieve heartburn within 30 minutes and can work for several hours. This mineral neutralizes esophageal acid and can prevent reflux. More recent research suggests that it can also improve esophageal movements (peristalsis), clearing more acid.

Nevertheless, even something as benign as this supplement increases your risk for rebound reflux when you quit, so taper your dosage gradually or over several weeks. As long as you’re taking this product, you don’t need another calcium supplement for bone loss. If you have to be on acid reflux drugs indefinitely, however, and want to take a calcium supplement for bone loss, then opt for calcium citrate because it’s absorbed just as well with or without stomach acid and should not increase your risk of kidney stones.

2. (tie) Artichoke leaf extract (Cynara scolymus) 640 milligrams (two pills) three times a day for 6 weeks maximum, primarily for indigestion

Functional dyspepsia, or indigestion, is slightly different from acid reflux or GERD. Symptoms include upper abdominal pain and discomfort with bloating, nausea, and a feeling of uncomfortable fullness. Artichoke leaf extract (ALE) contains a bitter compound called cynaropicrin, which has antispasmodic and other gastrointestinal benefits.

In studies, ALE (two 320-milligram pills three times a day for 6 weeks) reduced bloating and fullness and improved overall quality of life, but it didn’t reduce pain and nausea much better than a placebo.

However, six pills a day is a little tough to stomach for a lot of people, especially if you’re taking other pills as well. I get nervous when a supplement only works at high doses because the more you take of anything, the greater the odds that you’ll experience side effects. Also note, ALE comes from the daisy family; an allergic reaction or rash is a common side effect.

2. (tie) Alpha-galactosidase (Beano) follow package directions and use as needed

Bloating, gas, and flatulence (the GI triple threat) are common with functional dyspepsia. And enzyme-based dietary supplements like alpha-galactosidase can help reduce gas in the digestive tract that’s caused by the carbohydrates (sugars) in soybeans and other legumes as well as some veggies. (Soy products—like tofu, tempeh, miso, and soy protein—have been processed and the sugars have been removed, so they’re easier to digest than soybeans.)

If you have diabetes, check with your doctor before taking alpha-galactosidase supplements because they might impact your blood sugar. Similar OTC products contain simethicone (like Gas-X), which is an antifoaming agent and a pseudo natural product mixture of silica gel and polydimethylsiloxane.

3. Melatonin 1 to 3 milligrams once a day before bed for acid reflux and heartburn symptoms

Say what? Though melatonin is best known as a sleep aid, it also reduces acid secretion. There isn’t a plethora of clinical research on this yet, but the benefit far outweighs the risk, so it receives my bronze medal. I’ve had people from all over the country tell me they notice a difference with their GERD symptoms while taking melatonin.

This hormone is produced not only by the tiny pineal gland in your brain but also by cells within the gastrointestinal tract that affect movement. In fact, recent research suggests that the GI tract secretes several hundred times more melatonin than the pineal gland, and it appears that melatonin’s role in the GI tract is to protect the esophageal, stomach, and intestinal tissue.

In small studies where researchers used either melatonin alone, conventional proton pump inhibitor (PPI) medication, or a combination of the two, it was found that the combo worked better for pain and heartburn than the drug by itself. Melatonin has a similar chemical structure to some PPIs, such as omeprazole, and in one study it actually beat this acid reflux drug.

Some of these trials used 3 milligrams of melatonin at bedtime by itself or with a PPI or other acid reflux medication, but I recommend starting with a lower dose, such as 1 milligram. The most exciting ongoing research with melatonin is whether it can prevent ulcers or accelerate their healing when it’s combined with conventional medicine. Man, I dig this stuff!

What May Worsen Acid Reflux?

Ginger

Ginger reduces nausea, but it can make acid reflux worse by relaxing the opening between the esophagus and stomach, making it easier for acid to move upstream.

Peppermint oil

This herb can settle the stomach, but it can also open up the esophageal sphincter and make acid reflux worse. If you’re taking peppermint oil supplements for conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, make sure they’re enteric coated, which means they won’t dissolve until they reach the small intestine.

Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL)

This dietary supplement has been promoted in alternative medicine books for ulcers, heartburn, acid reflux, and all kinds of gastrointestinal disorders, but some of the best studies failed to show any clinical benefit. In the very best case scenario, it may be as effective as some older generic drugs for acid reflux (e.g., cimeti-dine), but even then you have to take it several times a day and it doesn’t go down easy (it tastes bad).

Still, it doesn’t come close to working as well as newer medications or supplements. Licorice dietary supplements, which are closely related, are much more of a problem in terms of side effects—including blood pressure swings and hormonal changes—and should not be used at all for reflux. (I can feel the heat coming off the heads of some alternative medicine experts after reading that DGL is not recommended for acid reflux. Boy am I going to get some hate mail from them, which I’ll add to the letters from the acid reflux drug manufacturers.)

Capsaicin

In capsule form, this fiery active ingredient in hot peppers has been shown to—surprise!—increase the risk of heartburn. I love capsaicin topically for neuropathy or arthritis pain, but it’s too caliente for acid reflux.

Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

The name is a dead giveaway. It’s known as an acid for a reason, my friends. It can make reflux and indigestion worse and only increases levels of acidity. In fact, any supplement that contains the word acid should be put on the “be leery” list. If you have to take C, look for nonacidic alternatives, such as calcium ascorbate or buffered vitamin C (pH neutral), which aren’t as harsh on the stomach.

Fish oil

It’s prone to causing reflux partly because of the size and number of pills needed and partly because fish oil can reduce lower esophageal sphincter pressure, allowing backflow. It’s also known for causing regurgitation or “fish burps,” which you can avoid by taking an enteric-coated product. (Some experts recommend storing them in the freezer to prevent this problem, but I say, “no thanks”; I don’t recommend taking pills that are too cold or too hot because they can cause esophageal irritation and damage.)

Fiber

These dietary supplements and powders can cause regurgitation and esophageal irritation, making GERD and even bloating worse. However, fiber from foods could be really helpful (see the following section on lifestyle).

Other Natural Remedies For Acid Reflux

Heart healthy = less acid reflux and GERD

Losing weight, eating more fiber- rich foods, and kicking the tobacco habit can help reduce acid reflux and your risk of cardiovascular disease. The more you can avoid or reduce your reliance on reflux medications through lifestyle changes, the better off you’ll be.

Limit caffeine and alcohol

They both increase acid reflux from the stomach into the esophagus when used in excess.

Pare off pounds

Losing just a little bit of weight (especially in the waist) takes some pressure off the stomach and can immediately reduce reflux. If the obesity epidemic were cut in half overnight, companies making acid reflux drugs and supplements would see their profits halved as well!

Loosen your belt

Avoid tight-fitting clothing unless you’re headed to a disco or Speedo bathing suit convention. Seriously, tight-fitting clothes increase abdominal pressure and can make acid reflux worse (just like weight gain).

Sleep with your head slightly elevated or on your left side

This is just gravity. The slope keeps stomach acid where it belongs. And besides losing weight, this is the second best thing you can do lifestyle-wise to relieve GERD. Snoozing on your right side relaxes the esophageal sphincter, allowing acid to creep up into the esophagus; lying on your left keeps the area between the esophagus and stomach above the level of gastric acid in the stomach (so remember: left is right!).

Eat smaller meals

This is especially important at dinner and before bedtime. Lower-carbohydrate diets with increased protein can have a calming effect on digestion, too.

Eliminate trigger foods

Fried, fatty, and greasy foods; fruit beverages; and acidic pills (like vitamin C) can make your condition worse.

Eat more fiber

It’s your best friend. Flaxseed, chia seed, oatmeal, and bran cereals work like a sponge to mop up acid. It’s one of the only things in your diet that clinical research has found can consistently reduce acid reflux and possibly even the risk of esophageal cancer that can result from chronic GERD.

Try to get 25 to 30 grams total (a combination of both soluble and insoluble fiber) per day through diet, not pills. The problem with taking fiber pills and powders is that they can expand in the throat or irritate an already inflamed esophagus. Stick with high-fiber cereals, like Fiber One or All-Bran Buds, or look for a fiber bar that has insoluble and soluble fiber.

Breathe deeply

New research suggests that performing abdominal breathing exercises before meals or at least 1 hour afterward can strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter and train it to tighten or open appropriately, reducing symptoms of reflux and reliance on medication.

This is still preliminary, but I think it’s interesting and exciting! You can search online for proper abdominal breathing exercise techniques, but they basically involve standing, sitting, or lying on your back while breathing through your nose as deeply as possible, making sure your stomach rises when you inhale and falls when you exhale. Even if the research ends up debunking this, rhythmic breathing exercises are known to improve several conditions, such as hot flashes and stress or anxiety, so it won’t do you harm.

Get needled

Preliminary studies have shown that acupuncture may help reduce regurgitation and heartburn.

What Else To Know About Treating Acid Reflux?

Many patients have asked me about a drug found in Canada and Europe called domperidone (no, not the champagne), which they claim helped to alleviate the symptoms of acid reflux better than any drug or supplement they have ever tried. The FDA, however, has concerns about cardiovascular toxicity with this drug, so it’s not one to take lightly. If you run out of options for your GERD, talk to your doctor about it.

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