Do you suffer from a warm, burning sensation in your chest after eating a meal? Do you notice that certain foods will trigger your heartburn? If so, you may be suffering from acid reflux.
Acid reflux causes the feeling of heartburn and the terms are used interchangeably. Heartburn is also called acid reflux and the prevailing thought is that heartburn/acid reflux is caused by too much acid in the stomach.
In many cases this is not accurate, most cases of acid reflux are caused by a lack of acid in the stomach 1,2. Low levels of acid in the stomach is called hypochlorhydria, this occurs as a normal part of the aging process and it can be affected by your lifestyle choices.
When we chew our food, we swallow it and it goes through the esophagus and into our stomach. There is a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter that closes after we swallow food so that the food from our stomach doesn’t go back into our esophagus. When this muscle is weak or there is too much abdominal pressure it can open, and food will leave the stomach and enter the esophagus.
The food that enters the stomach contains gastric acid that helps break down food and this mixture irritates the lining of the esophagus which leads to the burning sensation that causes heartburn.
*Remember that the stomach lining is protected by mucus that is secreted to prevent digestion of the stomach from the acid produced.
The esophagus does not have the same protective mucous that the stomach has and when the contents of the stomach enter the esophagus it causes a burning sensation.
The LES muscle is made up of a mixture of skeletal muscle and smooth muscle. Smooth muscle is controlled by and receives signals from the autonomic nervous system. It also receives signals from the chemical and pressure receptors in the stomach.
In people who don’t have acid reflux signals from the central nervous system and the stomach send signals to keep the LES closed. People who suffer from acid reflux these signals to the LES are not being sent and the LES opens allowing the contents of the stomach to enter the esophagus. Stress, increased pressure in the stomach, low levels of stomach acid, certain foods and medications can affect the LES.
Low acid levels
Low levels of acid in the stomach interfere with the signal to close the LES. When this signal is not sent the LES will not close tightly. If you have low levels of stomach acid, you may have other symptoms like bloating and infections because you don’t have enough acid to break down your food or kill harmful bacteria in your food.
Stress activates the autonomic branch of the central nervous system, you may be familiar with the fight or flight and rest and digest systems. When you are chronically stressed, and you eat under stressful conditions your body is not focusing on digestion. The body will stop the secretion of stomach acid and digestive enzymes, so it can focus on helping you face a threat or run.
This is why it is important to eat when you are relaxed or to take several deep breaths to activate the rest and digest system and turn off fight or flight.
Eating while stressed can lead to indigestion, bloating and in some cases, constipation so make sure to relax before you eat for optimal digestion.
Increased Abdominal Pressure
We all know if you have too much pressure in a container the top may come off to help relieve pressure. The same thing happens in your stomach, for example, if you eat too much too quickly, if you are obese or if you’re pregnant the increased pressure can cause your LES to open.
The best way to decrease abdominal pressure is to make sure that you eat your food slowly and if you’re obese lose weight.
Caffeine, fatty foods, and spicy food can affect the ability of the LES to stay closed. We all know that caffeine increases levels of the stress hormone and the stress hormone play a role in the fight or flight response. Fatty foods slow down the emptying of the stomach and this can lead to increased pressure in the stomach. Spicy foods may irritate the lining of the esophagus and the LES which may cause inflammation and keep it from closing.
How to Prevent Heartburn and Acid Reflux
1. Identify Trigger Foods
The easiest thing to do is to identify and avoid your trigger foods. The best way to do this is to keep a food journal. This will help you keep track of foods that trigger your acid reflux.
2. Decrease Abdominal Pressure
You can decrease abdominal pressure by losing weight and avoiding fatty foods at night. You can also elevate your head with pillows so that you’re not lying flat on your back.
3. Manage Stress
Activating the parasympathetic or rest and digest system is the best way to make sure that your food is properly absorbed and that you are making enough acid to keep the LES closed and break down your meal.
Hi, my name is Dr. Blessing and I help busy, professional women who struggle with fatigue, constipation, bloating, acid reflux and weight gain. I help my clients set clear boundaries, prioritize their health and identify the cause of their digestive health issues so they can live life on their terms.
If you struggle with brain fog, weight gain and digestive health issues fill out this questionnaire and sign up for a complimentary 20-minute consultation here.
- Jonathan Wright, MD, The Digestive Theory of Aging, Part I, http://www.tahoma-clinic.com/aging.shtml.