One of the most common digestive complaints among Americans is “acid indigestion.” We’ve all seen our share of TV ads for drugs to relieve the condition. In fact, the top-retailing drug in the U.S. in 2010—coming in at $5.27-plus billion in total sales—was a proton-pump inhibitor sold to treat Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Even a very popular U.S. magazine during the holidays last year included a doctor’s column about treating “holiday heartburn” with over-the-counter antacids.
But the real problem can often be too little acid—not too much. And taking antacids actually can make a bad problem worse.
Why? Because part of the process of digestion involves secretion of hydrochloric acid. We need the acid not only to digest our food, but also to knock out “bugs” that ride along with the food, so the acid is a key player in our immune system.
When there’s not enough hydrochloric acid being secreted, food does not digest readily and this creates pressure in the body’s crucible—the stomach. Create enough pressure and it pushes back against the lower esophageal valve that sits at the base of the esophagus and atop the stomach. Gases travel back up into the esophagus and what we feel is the sensation of the food “repeating” on us.
The trick is to know whether we truly have too much acid—or not enough.
Althea Northage-Orr, an acupuncturist and American Herbalists Guild (AHG) registered herbalist in Chicago shared the differences between the two at the annual AHG conference last year.
Symptoms of hyperacidity—too much acid—include the following: pain lessens after eating; the empty stomach feels hollow; the person may have sensations of ravenous hunger—even if she or he just ate; spices and bitters worsen the feeling while bland foods help the person feel better.
Symptoms of hypoacidity—too little acid—include pain made worse right after eating and the feeling of discomfort and heaviness/fullness lasts for an hour or more (the person feels like “I swallowed a brick”); and the symptoms are improved when fermented foods are added or bitters are taken.
Traditionally, people used warming bitters and carminatives—dandelion, wormwood, ginger, fennel, chamomile—to stimulate bile production to help break down food. Fermented foods, such as kimchi and sauerkrauts, also can be helpful in this regard as can a little apple cider vinegar or lemon juice in water taken before meals. Adding greens, especially bitter greens, to the diet can also help. These might include dandelion greens, arugula or radicchio. If these do not work, a person may need to get Betaine HCl and try that, but Northage-Orr suggests combining it with a demulcent, such as marshmallow root.
For hyperacidity, we turn to herbal teas. Northage-Orr suggests meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), cranesbill/wild geranium (Geranium maculata), slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), marshmallow root (Althea offinalis), and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). There is also a ready-made formula, Bastyr B, which includes many of these plants. If the person is experiencing esophageal spasms, crampbark (Viburnum opulus), black haw (Viburnum prunifolium), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), and catnip (Nepeta cataria) may be added. The person may also take a small amount of lobelia (Lobelia inflata), in tincture form, 8 to 10 drops in water. This is more for when it feels like they “just swallowed a golf ball and it got stuck” or it feels like they’re having a heart attack.
Northage-Orr’s own blend, Althea’s Tummy Tea, includes meadowsweet, wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), licorice, catnip, chamomile and cranesbill in equal parts along with anise or peppermint for flavoring.
Ingredients can often be found at local health food stores or online. For any of the digestive teas, you can make a jar in the morning and drink at least two cups during the day. If the amount is 1 T to 1 cup of boiling water, it needs to steep 15 minutes. If making a quart jar, then 4 T to the quart and let it steep at least one hour. These can also be made the night before.
Northage-Orr also recommends paying attention to dietary and lifestyle factors. For example, it’s important to avoid processed foods, eat more like our pre-agricultural ancestors ate, dial back on refined carbs, avoid fad diets and too-cold and allergy-inducing foods. Too-cold foods can include fruit. “Our bodies aren’t used to eating fruit year round,” Northage-Orr says.
Lifestyle changes may include taking the time to eat, paying attention to where you eat (e.g., not in front of the television), and not eating too late at night. If there’s GERD, for instance, eat at least three hours or more before bedtime. And try to de-stress as much as possible; catnip can be helpful for people who feel anxious and overfocused.
Lastly, it’s important to recognize that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can also disrupt gastric processes. Certain demulcent herbs may help to counter their effect.
Please note that nothing in this article is intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure acid-related digestive issues. All people are different, and their unique health issues should be addressed by qualified health practitioners. For more information, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410/757.4070.