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The Learning Series: Not-So-Sexy-Heartburn (and plants to the rescue!)

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

Over the next series of blogs, I will be writing about some very common symptoms many of us experience at some point in our human lives. I will present common reasons for the symptoms, herbal/nutritional therapeutics, and spiritual and emotional practices that can assist you on your healing journey.

Are you ready?? Let's talk about heartburn…Ugh, there is nothing sexy about heartburn.

If you experience this more than two times a week it is considered Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), but even if you experience it here and there, it’s a message your body is sending to you. I would like to teach you how to interpret the message.

What is heartburn? Well, it can be quite uncomfortable. At its mildest, you can’t feel it, but at its worst, it feels like fire creeping from below your sternum and up into your chest. What is actually happening? I’ll give a brief anatomy lesson as it’s empowering to understand your own body and what’s going on inside.

Our digestive tract begins with our mouth. When we swallow, contents travel down the esophagus and

pass through the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and into your stomach. There should always be a certain amount of stomach acid (hydrochloric acid) hanging around in there (3-4 L is produced daily if functioning properly), but when you begin chewing, your digestive system is signaled to produce a surge of gastric juices (hydrochloric acid, bile acids, and pancreatic enzymes) to help lower bacterial ingestion and break down foods to a digestible form.

Our stomach has a lovely lining that protects the tissue from the gastric juices, but the esophagus does not. As you can imagine, if gastric juice goes up into the esophagus, that’ll burn like hell and cause inflammation! It’s not just an annoying symptom, it’s information your body is communicating to you that there is something going on, and if unaddressed, can cause permanent tissue changes (scarring) and cancer. So, if you are plagued by heartburn, pay attention.

Before we dive into common triggers of heartburn, let me explain what the LES is responsible for. It’s a super important part of our anatomy. (Well, all of our anatomy is important…that’s what makes our bodies so badass!) First, can I be a total juvenile nerd and chuckle about the word sphincter…..or is that just me? Ha! ANYWAY, just like the other sphincters in our body, the lower esophageal sphincter acts like an automated gate or door. When stomach acid meets with the LES, the ‘door’ closes. As you can imagine, when this sphincter (Ha…how many times should I say the word) isn’t functioning like it should, it can cause some major problems. The LES can be too relaxed, or not relaxed enough. Here are common reasons for heartburn or GERD.

Most Common Reasons for Gastric Reflux

Overeating - It’s pretty simple here….if you overeat, there’s too much upward pressure and the LES can’t hold it. Like a dam that breaks with water levels that are too high.

Solution: Eat more slowly to allow your body to signal to you it’s had enough so you don’t over eat.

Certain Foods

  • Fats - You need stronger acids (bile acids) to break down fats. If you eat a diet heavy in fats, the increased production of bile acids weakens the LES over time.

  • Carbohydrates - Carbs break down into sugars which feed bacteria. There are microbes in all of our food, in our stomach, and intestinal tract. Think of it like a fermentation process - as the sugar feeds the bacteria, it produces gas in the metabolic process. The gas increases pressure in the stomach and pushes through the LES, allowing acids to reach the esophagus.

  • Caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol - Smoking nicotine, drinks high in caffeine like coffee, and certain alcoholic beverages can cause the LES to relax too much and allow for reflux.

Solution: Eat meals that are balanced in healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates that break down to sugars more slowly, and lessen caffeine and alcohol intake….. if you’re smoking, let’s talk about ways to quit.

Food Sensitivities - If you have a sensitivity to certain foods, the immune system will release histamines. Histamines cause the LES to relax and allow gastric juices to flow back up into the esophagus.

Solution: pay attention to which foods seem to cause heartburn. Some of the most common food triggers are gluten, dairy, corn, eggs, nightshades, and soy. It may be time for you to do some food elimination to test which foods are causing issues. In many cases, these food triggers will cause more than just heartburn, but this may be the first symptom you will experience. If there is an actual sensitivity, the food trigger will cause a systemic immune response and that can present in many ways; headaches, joint pain, anxiety, constipation, diarrhea, and sinus congestion, to name a few. For me, gluten is a trigger of heartburn and it can get so bad that the LES becomes inflamed and “stiff” and does not relax to allow food into the stomach. This feels like a hard ball stuck in your lower chest and is quite alarming. This is referred to as dysphagia. Once I eliminated gluten, this completely ceased, along with a list of other symptoms.

Hiatal Hernia - This is an anatomical change where the stomach bulges through the diaphragm and up

into the esophagus. The LES is unable to function and gastric juices flow uninhibited into the esophagus.

Causes: being born with a large hiatus, injury or trauma like a seatbelt from a car wreck, obesity, persistent pressure like chronic cough, intense repetitive vomiting, straining to have a bowel movement, or lifting heavy objects.

Solution: Drink 12 oz. of water and do 10 heel drops to encourage the hernia to return to its correct anatomical position. If it’s severe enough, this won’t work, but it’s worth a shot!

Hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid) - As I mentioned above, when stomach acid meets with the LES, the sphincter closes. If you aren’t producing enough hydrochloric acid, you may experience reflux. Along with reflux, you aren't able to break down foods and will experience nutritional deficiencies. It has been found that at least 20% of the population doesn’t produce enough stomach acid. This can lead to Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) which causes a slew of other symptoms like bloating, nausea, and abdominal pain after eating caused by gas due to overgrown bacteria.

A good way to test: on a completely empty stomach, first thing in the morning add ¼ teaspoon of baking soda to 2 – 4 oz of water and drink. Set a timer and see how long it takes to burp. Less than 5 minutes is likely normal stomach acid. Greater than 5 minutes might indicate hypochlorhydria. No burping at all indicates a more severe condition, possibly achlorhydria (No stomach acid).

Causes: taking a Proton Pump Inhibitor (PPI) that reduces stomach acid production (I have some major opinions on this pharmaceutical drug), autoimmune gastritis where the immune system destroys acid producing cells in the stomach called parietal cells (also seems to be associated with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis), or Helicobacter Pylori (H. Pylori) bacterial overgrowth.

Solution: The solutions vary with this one because it really depends on the cause of low stomach acid production, but to simplify, BITTERS will be your friend! (More information below)

Stress - Some studies show that stress increases stomach acid production and decreases the muscle tone of the LES which then allows for reflux. Stress also causes a decrease in prostaglandin production which is what protects the lining of the stomach, leading to stress ulcers. Other studies lead to the theory that when we are stressed and anxious, our pain receptors are more sensitive and we feel more of the burn sensation. We do know that stress over long periods of time causes a cascade of health issues.

Solution: Find ways to reduce stress and regulate the nervous system!! Meditation, breathwork (try box-breathing), (Hint hint - join my Cannabis Assisted Breathwork ceremony!), calming herbs (more info below.)

Phew! That’s a ton of information! Now for the fun part….Plants!

Plant Medicines

It’s important to understand the difference between allopathic therapeutics and supportive therapeutics. Allopathic treatment is the model of ‘this for that’ - meaning, you are treating a symptom rather than getting to the root of it. This is largely what modern medicine does. An example would be, “I have a headache, so I’m going to take ibuprofen.” Supportive therapeutics would be assessing what may be causing the headache and treating it from below the symptom, like drinking water for a headache caused by dehydration.

Herbs can often be used in an allopathic way, and I don’t necessarily disagree with this use, as long as you are treating the root cause as well. In saying that, I will present herbs that can suppress heartburn and herbal formulas that can support the body in recovery as well.

Soothing Herbs

Marshmallow leaf and root - Soothing and protective to the mucosal lining in the esophagus and the stomach. Best as a cold tea infusion.

Licorice root - This is an important herb with many indications and actions. In the case of reflux, it acts as an anti-inflammatory and soothes the mucosal lining. This is best taken in small doses and short periods of time. Higher doses can cause hypertensive crises and excessive potassium levels which can cause fatal heart arrhythmia. There are many supplements formulated with an appropriate dose of licorice.

Slippery Elm - Soothing and protective to the mucosal lining in the esophagus and the stomach. Best as a cold tea infusion.

Aloe vera juice - You can find aloe vera juice at a health food store (make sure there's no added sugar!). This soothes the mucosal lining and is a great anti-inflammatory as well. Don’t ingest straight aloe gel from the plant without planning on some serious diarrhea!

Meadowsweet - This plant tackles many angles of heartburn, so it's an herbalist go-to for reflux

symptoms. It will soothe inflammation, decrease pain, protect the stomach lining while toning the tissue so the cells are more efficient, and may actually decrease histamine production in a food sensitivity situation. Best taken as a tea infusion or a capsule.

<------Here’s a great soothing reflux herbal tablets

Herbs to Promote Digestive Juice Secretion AKA Bitters

Side note: Whether you have issues with heartburn or not, the bitter flavor is important for our digestion. We used to eat far more foods and drinks that contained the bitter flavor. Now we are such suckers for the sweet part of our palate that most people think bitters are difficult to ingest. Bitters stimulate gastric juices and the forward movement of your digestive tract to prepare for incoming food. It is beneficial for all taken about 10 minutes before you eat and shortly after. If you have high stomach acid (which is rarely the case), bitters are contraindicated. If you take bitters and it makes your heartburn worse, you know your issue lies in overproduction.

There are some fantastic bitter formulas out there, but here’s a list of herbs that have an affinity for the digestive tract.: Dandelion root and leaf, orange peel, anise seed (pimpinella not star anise), ginger, burdock root, cardamom, chicory root, gentian (this one is overharvested so I tend to choose other herbs).

Here's a great bitters formula ------>

Nervous System Calming Herbs

Unless you are living in the woods or jungle, surrounded by nature (swoon), you need help calming your nervous system. We live in a world full of small and large stressors. There are so many beautiful calming herbs (nervines), but I’ll list a few of my favorites that align with the digestive tract as well.

Chamomile - This is one of my all-time favorite herbs. Not only is chamomile a gentle nervous system calmer, it also has great properties that help the digestive tract. Anti-inflammatory and tissue healer, soothes cramping, calms gas, and also has a bitter flavor profile! All around super power plant.

Motherwort - This is another favorite of mine. Not as much of an affinity to the GI tract besides the VERY bitter flavor, but a lovely calming plant medicine that also calms heart palpitations from nerves. Definitely don't take this if you could be pregnant. It’s a potent emmenagogue which means it can cause an abortion for some.

Hops - This is another super bitter herb that is also very calming. A good hops tea after dinner is a good way to help with digestion and start turning down your nervous system, for bedtime.

Damiana - Mmmm….damiana. Love this one too. It’s a bitter and calming for the nervous system but not like a sedative. It relaxes the nervous system from tension which is one of the reasons it’s such a great aphrodisiac.

Skullcap - This is another bitter (seeing a trend here?) that calms the nervous system, and also the skeletal muscles. Think nervous tension causing sore neck or back…..this is a great herb for you!

OK, I think I have loaded you up with information. Key points: eat a clean diet loaded with whole foods, exercise, calm the nervous system with meditation, breathwork, and/or herbs, perhaps take bitters to aid in digestion, and scale back on high-sugar foods, fatty foods, alcohol, and tobacco. And don’t forget to play! Our bodies work better when we experience joy and pleasure! And if you would like some help decoding your patterns and increasing your vitality so that you feel better in this beautiful life, reach out!

Click here for my supplement dispensary if you want to have a look. You get a great discount by going through this link!

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