Between 25 percent to 40 percent of Americans of all ages suffer from acid reflux symptoms, plus an estimated 20 percent of adults experience gastroesophageal reflux disease weekly or daily — commonly called GERD or referred to as heartburn, a more severe case of acid reflux. (1) Why do so many suffer from these agitating, often persistent symptoms of indigestion? As you’ll learn, there are many common causes of GERD and acid reflux, which include pregnancy, hiatal hernias, eating an unhealthy diet and an imbalance of stomach acid. All of these can result in the regurgitation of acid that triggers unpleasant symptoms, such as burning or belching.
At the root of acid reflux is dysfunction of the the lower esophageal sphincter, which is supposed to close as soon as food passes through. However, if it doesn’t close all the way, acid can creep up from lower in the digestive system and begin to cause an array of problems. If it’s not treated properly, long-term acid reflux can cause severe damage.
Easing acid reflux or GERD symptoms temporarily with medications or over-the-counter drugs is usually not a cure, only a way to offer some relief as symptoms are suppressed short term. And ironically, these medications may cause new or worsened symptoms depending on how you react. If you’ve been relying on over-the-counter and/or prescriptions to ease pain and discomfort, you might be familiar with some of the notorious side effects associated with their use, which include headaches, muscle cramps, rapid heart rate and more digestive upset.
Below you’ll find information related to natural remedies for managing acid reflux symptoms, providing you with a much better understanding overall of what causes this type of digestive dysfunction to begin with and how it can finally come to an end. In addition to lowering acid reflux symptoms, the same types of treatments can also usually be helpful for managing related issues, such as GERD symptoms.
Acid Reflux Symptoms
The most common acid reflux and GERD symptoms include: (3)
- Bitter taste in your mouth, periodically or for some people throughout the day — some people taste regurgitated food or sour liquid at the back of their mouths/throats
- Waking up feeling like you’re choking or coughing in the middle of the night
- Dry mouth
- Gum irritation, including tenderness and bleeding
- Bad breath
- Regurgitation of acidic foods
- Bloating after meals and during bouts of symptoms
- Bloody vomiting (possible sign of damage in lining of esophagus)
- Black stools
- Belching, gassiness, burping and flatulence after meals
- Hiccups that are difficult to stop
- Difficulty swallowing (possible sign of narrowing esophagus)
- Unexpected weight loss
- Discomfort worsens when bending over or laying down
- Hoarseness upon arising or throughout the day
- Chronic throat irritation, soreness and dryness
Complications Due to Acid Reflux
If you experience ongoing regurgitation of acid — because you don’t respond well to medications or don’t take steps to treat the root causes, for examples — scarring of tissue in the lower esophagus can result or narrowing of the esophagus, which raises the risk for other problems. Research shows that long-term complications associated with untreated symptoms of acid reflux include Barrett’s esophagus (a serious complication of GERD), cancer of the esophagus, sleep-related problems and chronic coughs. (4)
As the rate of acid reflux has risen steadily over the past decade, so have related complications. The American Cancer Society estimates that as of 2011, nearly 17,000 new cases of esophageal cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. and almost 15,000 Americans died of the disease. There are also side effects and complications possible due to taking medications for acid reflux, including prescription and even over-the-counter drugs. More on these effects is discussed below.
Causes and Risk Factors of Acid Reflux Symptoms
Contrary to popular belief (and what many pharmaceutical companies say in advertisements), acid reflux symptoms are not caused by too much acid in the stomach. In fact, studies show that not enough stomach acid often causes symptoms.
Acid reflux is instead caused from acid rising up to the esophagus, the tube that connects the throat and stomach. Acid enters the esophagus because of a leaky valve, and there are a variety of reasons this happens. The esophageal valve that connects the esophagus and stomach is unable to shut properly and gastric juices end up “sneaking up the pipe.” Then without proper levels of acid in the stomach, digestion is altered, often causing unpleasant symptoms.
While everyone’s gut is different and we all have different food sensitivities as well as triggers for acid reflux, there’s some repeat offenders that seem to contribute to most cases of acid reflux or GERD. (5)
Causes and risk factors associated with acid reflux and GERD include:
- High levels of inflammation: Studies have found that inflammation is linked to the development of GERD because it causes tissue damage and dysfunction in the esophagus.
- Hiatal hernia: Hernias can cause the unpleasant symptoms of acid reflux. This is because the diaphragm helps separate the stomach from the chest. A hiatal hernia is when the upper part of the stomach protrudes above the diaphragm, allowing acid to escape.
- Older age: It’s estimated that half of the American population over 50 years old lacks the appropriate amount of stomach acid needed to digest their food fully. This is a side effect of aging, although it affects some of the elderly more than others.
- Pregnancy: When a woman is pregnant, the fetus can put extra pressure on the esophageal valve, causing the release of acid and symptoms of acid reflux. Elevating the head during sleep, sipping herbal teas and eating smaller meals can help.
- Being overweight or obese: Both can put extra pressure on the valves and sphincter that allow release of acid. In addition, obesity is often associated with low levels of stomach acid. (6) In eight of nine studies included in a large review, as BMI (body mass index, a measure of body fat ) rose, so did GERD symptoms.
- Large meals: Eating bigger meals is a culprit, as is snacking too close to bedtime. An overly full stomach places excessive pressure on the diaphragm, causing acid to travel upward.
- Smoking cigarettes: This impairs muscle reflexes and increases production of acid, and it should be avoided for anyone suffering from acid reflux.
- Certain medications, including ibuprofen, muscle relaxers, some blood pressure prescriptions and aspirin: All can cause acid reflux and GERD. Read warning labels, and discuss alternatives with your physician.
- Heartburn: Heartburn can be the first symptom of an H. pylori infection that’s common in two-thirds of the population and tied to stomach ulcers. Left untreated, severe infection can sometimes contribute to formation of stomach cancer.
- Excessive exercise: Due to taxing the nervous system, overtraining and getting too little rest can cause acid reflux by putting extra pressure in the abdominal cavity. This includes running and other aerobic high-impact exercises. (7)
- Magnesium deficiency: Low magnesium levels can lead to improper functioning of the sphincter that prevents acid from escaping.
Acid Reflux vs. GERD vs. Heartburn: How Are They Different?
All of these painful digestive conditions are related and tend to cause similar symptoms, however they usually develop in stages.
In the case of acid reflux, the patient experiences backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus. When this progresses, it can be diagnosed as GERD, which is considered to be more severe. (8)
Heartburn is also commonly called GERD. The most common symptom of GERD is frequent pains in the chest and burning sensations (hence the name “heartburn”). Other signs of GERD are difficulty swallowing or keeping down food/liquids (very common in young children), coughing, wheezing, and chest pain. Most often these symptoms happen at night.
It’s estimated that more than 60 million Americans have heartburn at least once a month. (9) An alarming finding is that the prevalence of weekly heartburn and other symptoms of acid reflux rose nearly 50 percent over the last decade. Findings from one study conducted over 11 years in Norway found that the incidence of acid reflux rose from around 11 percent of the population to over 17 percent within this time period, and a similar rise has happened in the U.S. and other industrialized countries too. (10)
While it might not be the biggest deal to have acid reflux symptoms from time to time, research shows that people with long-standing, chronic heartburn are at greater risk for serious complications, including stricture (narrowing) of the esophagus.
Conventional Treatments for Acid Reflux Symptoms
The three main types of medicines to treat acid reflux symptoms or those caused by GERD are antacids, histamine type 2 receptor antagonists and proton pump inhibitors.
Continued use of these medications — such as Nexium, Pepcid, Prevacid, Prilosec, Zantac and others — can help keep symptoms to a minimum temporarily, but they actually also can wind up causing harm in the long run. For some, these drugs can lead to serious nutrient deficiencies, including vitamin B12 deficiency, calcium deficiency and magnesium deficiency. (11)
Acid reflux/GERD drugs can also contribute to symptoms like poor digestion, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, anemia and fatigue. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, gastric acid suppression medications are even associated with an increased risk of C. difficile infections. (12) C. difficile infections can be life-threatening and present initially with abdominal pain and diarrhea. Most individuals who are diagnosed with C. difficilie have low levels of healthy bacteria in the gut because of prolonged antibiotic use or have digestive tract problems, including GERD and acid reflux that’s been treated with proton pump inhibitors. (13)
3 Natural Remedies for Acid Reflux Symptoms
1. Acid Reflux Diet
Virtually every research study done on GERD and acid reflux points to diet as a contributing factor. First and foremost, the symptoms of acid reflux and GERD must be treated by changes in your diet in order to avoid long-term complications and restore healthy digestive dysfunction. Don’t ignore your body trying to alert you to a problem in your digestive tract.
For good digestive health and overall health and wellness, it’s important to select unprocessed, organic foods free from GMOs as much as possible. Increasing fiber intake, supporting healthy bacteria in your gut with probiotic-rich foods and taking supplements if necessary can all help resolve symptoms. Other steps include reducing grains (especially when refined) and sugar consumption, eating high-quality protein, and reducing intake of refined vegetable oils. All of these help protect the GI tract, balance hormonal function and help prevent many serious chronic diseases associated with poor digestive health.
Here are some foods that tend to make acid reflux worse and therefore should be avoided to minimize symptoms:
- Carbonated beverages, sugary drinks or energy drinks
- Artificial sweeteners
- Fried foods
- Vegetable oils, including canola oil
- Spicy foods
- Processed foods
Foods that can help improve acid reflux include fresh organic vegetables (especially leafy greens, squash, artichoke, asparagus and cucumbers), free-range chicken and grass-fed beef, probiotic foods like yogurt, bone broth, healthy fats like coconut or olive oil, apple cider vinegar, aloe vera, parsley, ginger, and fennel. (14)
2. Supplements for Acid Reflux Symptoms
In addition to eating a healthy diet of foods that help to soothe the symptoms of acid reflux and GERD, some find improvements when adding natural supplements to their diets. These can include:
- Digestive enzymes — Take one or two capsules of a high-quality digestive enzyme at the start of each meal. Digestive enzymes help foods fully digest and nutrients absorb properly.
- Probiotics — Take 25–50 billion units of high-quality probiotics daily. Adding healthy bacteria helps balance the digestive tracts and crowd out bad bacteria that can lead to indigestion, leaky gut and poor absorption of nutrients.
- HCL with Pepsin — Take one 650 milligram pill prior to each meal. Add additional pills as necessary to keep uncomfortable symptoms at bay.
- Chamomile, papaya or ginger herbal tea — Sip one cup of chamomile tea prior to bed sweetened with raw honey. Chamomile tea helps reduce inflammation in the digestive tract, supporting healthy functioning. You can also boil a one-inch piece of fresh ginger in 10 ounces of water for 10 minutes. In addition, papain, an enzyme in papaya, aids in digestion by breaking down proteins.
- Magnesium complex supplement — I recommend taking 400 milligrams of a high-quality magnesium supplement twice per day.
3. Other Tips for Improving Digestive Health
- Raise the head of the bed four to six inches. Use blocks to raise the bed, not just a pillow to keep your head propped up, which can help keep acid in the stomach.
- Exercise and manage stress. A sedentary lifestyle and stress worsens symptoms of acid reflux and overall disrupt digestion. Try yoga, meditation, acupuncture, music or art therapy, or whatever helps you effectively manage stress.
- Don’t overeat. Eat smaller meals to allow foods to properly digest, as large meals and overeating put extra pressure on the sphincter.
- Give up smoking and drinking too much alcohol.
- Don’t consume food three hours prior to bed. Allow your stomach to digest the foods from the meal, and sip an herbal tea instead.
- Chew foods more thoroughly. Most people today don’t chew their food enough. Remember, digestion starts in the mouth.
Precautions Regarding Acid Reflux Symptoms
If your acid reflux symptoms interfere with your lifestyle or daily activity and last for more than two weeks, then consider visiting a doctor. Other reasons to get a professional opinion on treatment options include experiencing hoarseness, worsening of asthma after meals, pain that’s persistent when lying down, pain following exercise, difficulty breathing that occurs mainly at night, and trouble swallowing for more than one to two days.
Final Thoughts on Acid Reflux Symptoms
- Acid reflux is caused by stomach acid creeping up into the esophagus. Symptoms of acid reflux usually include chest pains, heartburn, a bad taste in the mouth, bloating, gassiness, and difficulty digesting and swallowing properly.
- Common causes of acid reflux and GERD include pregnancy, history of hiatal hernias, obesity, eating an unhealthy diet, older age and an imbalance of stomach acid.
- Natural remedies for acid reflux/GERD include improving your diet, avoiding certain problem foods, reaching a healthier weight, taking helpful supplements and eating smaller, more balanced meals.