All of us have experienced heartburn or reflux at one point in our lives. As we get older, this problem tends to become more frequent and actually becomes a chronic and persistent condition in many of us. Most sufferers equate this condition with hot, spicy foods, fatty meals, etc. Yes, these foods can aggravate the SYMPTOM of the condition (heartburn) but they aren't usually the primary CAUSE of the symptom.
Lots of people can eat these foods and never experience heartburn, so why do they cause symptoms in some but not others? The ones who suffer these conditions usually have a low grade underlying kind of gastritis or stomach irritation making them susceptible to developing this symptom.
The stomach has a very thick mucous membrane which acts like insulation for the stomach wall. If you didn't have this mucous lining, the acid in your stomach would digest and breakdown the stomach muscle much the same way it breaks down dietary "muscles" such as fish, chicken or beef. It protects us from our own stomach acid. As we age and we begin to break down, this mucous lining naturally starts to weaken and thin. When the lining gets too thin, it loses its insulation properties and the stomach acid gets too close to the meat of the stomach and irritates it. Imagine this irritated spot in the stomach getting exposed to a hot spicy food item. It's going to hurt that spot.
The stomach's response to that irritation is to spasm and guard against the pain. When the stomach spasms, the contents of the stomach get expelled quickly. Some of the contents can get forced downward into the intestine and can aggravate the bowels. Other contents are forced upwards, through the esophageal sphincter and into the esophagus. The contents forced upwards are very acidic and the esophageal mucous membrane is much thinner than the stomach membrane and there is not enough to protect against the acid in the esophagus. This will cause burning in that part of the esophagus, this is reflux or heartburn.
The medical communities answer to this is to prescribe antacid medications and often say that reflux is caused by having "too much stomach acid". This is almost NEVER the case. The problem isn't having too much stomach acid. The problem is that the acid you do have is going in the wrong direction. It's going up instead of down. All these medications do is decrease the production of stomach acid, or buffer the acid that is in the stomach. This helps in two ways. First, there is less stomach acid to irritate the sore spot in the stomach which will decrease the spasming effect in the stomach causing the reverse flow of acid up the esophagus thus reducing the heartburn symptom. The other way this helps is that it decreases the acidity level of the fluid being forced back up the esophagus thus burning the lining less.
There are two major problems with this approach to managing the condition. First, you are decreasing the production of a major digestive enzyme (HCL) in the stomach so very commonly lower bowel issues will ultimately begin to develop and in some cases nutritional deficiencies due to maldigestion and malabsorption issues. Second, and more importantly, this type of management doesn't address the CAUSE of the reverse flow of acid, which is theirritated mucous membrane of the stomach lining.
We can alleviate the symptoms of the condition with over the counter and prescription antacid medications. But if you don't address the cause of the irritation in the stomach then and then try and come off the medications, the symptoms will obviously return.
What causes irritations in the mucous membrane of the stomach? The obvious culprits agreed upon by the conventional and complementary medical worlds are alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and stress. All can have an erosive effect on the stomach lining leading to irritation. Many who suffer with chronic or persistent reflux and heartburn often don't abuse any of these things though. Gastritis in children is very common and this demographic doesn't tend to consume a lot of coffee or alcohol, or smoke too much. Often adults can eat extremely healthy diets, and not smoke or drink and still suffer with persistent stomach problems. Finally, many of know people who smoke and drink too much, have horrible diets, and yet don't suffer with any stomach problems or reflux issues. What's the difference between sufferers and non sufferers?
The most common factor amongst all those who suffer are hidden food allergies and sensitivities which affect the mucous membranes of the digestive tract. Someone with a horrible diet and lifestyle but with no food sensitivities is more likely to be symptom free. Someone who has food sensitivities is more likely to suffer with stomach issues in spite of how healthy their diet might appear.
Food allergies are immunological reactions to foods in our diets. They can occur in the digestive tract or can occur once the food is absorbed into the blood stream. Both of these scenarios can impact the health of the mucous membrane in the digestive tract. If a food is "attacked" by an antibody in the digestive tract, it is likely to cause an inflammatory reactionin the tissue where the interaction takes place. This inflammation can erode and irritate the mucous lining of the stomach and or bowel, causing reflux and heartburn but also lower bowel issues such as constipation or diarrhea. An immunological reaction in the blood stream, can produce antibodies against the food that will be secreted back into the mucous membrane of the digestive tract. There it can react again with the offending food causing inflammation and irritation of the mucous lining of the digestive tract. These antibodies can also cross react (molecular mimicry) with tissues lining the intestine or the connective tissue surrounding the intestine and can lead to inflammatory bowel diseases such as crohn's or colitis. There are many different ways in which the immune system can react against a food to irritate the digestive tract lining.
The end result (or symptoms) are quite often the same. Signs of inflammation can be throughout the digestive tract. In the stomach this shows as reflux and heartburn. In the small intestine, it can result in irritable bowel syndrome and dysfunction. In the colon, it can lead to constipation and bowel dysfunction. Very often sufferers with heartburn and reflux suffer through with other conditions relating to it. An individual with reflux, IBS and constipation will commonly think of these things as separate "conditions" when in fact they are the same condition, just affecting different parts of the digestive tract.
If you can identify and address the cause of the inflammation in the stomach lining, you decrease the sensitivity of the stomach, reduce the spasming and reverse flow of acid up the esophagus, and thus reduce the heartburn, by addressing the root cause of your heartburn. Also, you will likely feel improvements in other conditions you never knew were related to your heartburn.