Many people believe that heartburn is the price you pay for eating too many spicy foods. However, the reality is that heartburn isn’t just the result of eating too many blazing hot chicken wings or three-alarm chili; it can occur for a variety of reasons.
Heartburn, also called GERD (gastro esophageal reflux disease) or acid reflux, causes a burning pain in the center or upper portion of your chest, usually right behind your breastbone. It’s common for the pain to be worse right after you’ve eaten, later in the day or when you’re lying down. Some people report that burning heartburn pain can wake them up at night. Furthermore, if you suffer from heartburn, you’re not alone. About 60 million Americans experience heartburn symptoms at least once a month, and an estimated 15 million people have heartburn symptoms every day!
Many people believe that the symptoms of heartburn are caused by an overabundance of stomach acid, but its underlying cause is actually structural. At the bottom of your esophagus (the tube from your mouth to your stomach) is a ring of muscle, called the esophageal sphincter. If that muscle becomes lax, stomach acid can escape upward into your esophagus. Your stomach is able to handle the acid, but when it moves up into your esophagus it causes a painful burning sensation.
While the underlying problem behind heartburn is a weak esophageal sphincter, there are a number of factors that can trigger or aggravate your symptoms. They include:
- Certain foods and drinks, which can act as a trigger for some people. The most common offenders include onions, chocolate, alcohol, tomato-based sauces, citrus fruit or juice, carbonated beverages, highly spiced foods, and rich or fried foods. In addition, mint and peppermint can actually relax your esophageal sphincter, so breath mints, mint-flavored gum and peppermint tea may also trigger episodes of heartburn.
- A high level of stress is a common factor for people with heartburn. Stress can cause your digestion to slow down, and it can deplete substances in your stomach that protect it from the effects of acid. In addition, if stomach acid is backing up into your esophagus, it can make you more sensitive to the pain. Stress and heartburn can also create a negative health spiral, in which each condition can make the other worse.
- Eating right before bed. This is a gravity issue, in that when you lie down, recently eaten food moves upward. If your heartburn symptoms are at their worst at night, you may be eating too late in the day.
- Eating too much or too quickly. If your stomach becomes overly full, it increases the risk that stomach acid will be pushed upward into your esophagus. Similarly, if you’re wolfing down your food without chewing it completely, it slows down the digestive process, upping your chances for heartburn.
- Being overweight or pregnant can also elevate your chances of developing heartburn. That’s because both conditions increase abdominal pressure, which makes instances of reflux more likely.
Not only is heartburn uncomfortable, but it can also interfere with your life. In addition, over time, chronic heartburn can damage your esophagus and increase your risk for a precancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus. For these reasons, it’s important to get your heartburn under control.
The Western biomedical strategy is to deal with your stomach acid. Tactics may include neutralizing it with antacids, or by blocking the production of stomach acid with medications called proton pump inhibitors. These medications may be found over-the-counter or prescribed by your doctor.
Some people who suffer from heartburn have turned to Chinese medicine for relief, and many have found that acupuncture has provided effective results. One of the first steps your acupuncturist will take in developing a treatment plan is to first determine why your symptoms are happening. For example, chronic stress, eating too many foods that inflame your stomach or very slow digestion may be triggering your heartburn. And focusing on the root cause of your symptoms is the key to successful treatment in Chinese medicine.
A number of research studies have concluded that acupuncture can be a good idea when it comes to treating your heartburn. Scientists have documented that acupuncture treatments can improve the activity of the esophageal sphincter, decrease the intensity of heartburn and chest pain and reduce the backflow of stomach acid into the esophagus.
If you opt for Chinese medicine to treat your heartburn, your acupuncture practitioner will likely incorporate other healing tools into your treatment, too. This may include dietary therapy in order to eliminate foods that trigger your symptoms, but also to improve your digestion and support your overall health. Your acupuncturist may prescribe an herbal formula, which can support your acupuncture treatments, promote better digestion, reduce your symptoms, and address any other health issues that may be contributing to your heartburn.
If you’re waffling about whether or not to try acupuncture, the bottom line is that heartburn or GERD doesn’t have to mean a life of popping antacids, burning pain and worrying about what you eat. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can offer you safe, natural, and drug-free solutions to help cool the fire of heartburn and give you your life back.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.