the 101: heartburn + why you should look to your gut health

March 8, 2017

All of us have experienced heartburn at some point, right? Its not the sexiest of subjects, that burning, acidic feeling in your throat, chest, even your upper belly - something I like to call "acid belly" when its particularly bad. However, occasional heartburn is not actually caused by an influx of acid. Quite the contrary, its oftentimes present due to a lack of acid in your belly - hydrochloric acid, that is. 


What's hydrochloric acid?

Hydrochloric acid (HCL) is the lovely chemical secretion in your stomach, helping to break down food particles you eat so they will be ready for nutrient absorption at their next stop - the small intestine. With a low pH of approximately 2, HCL is especially good at breaking down proteins in your belly as they prepare to move through the rest of the digestive process, as well as maintaining a proper environment for keeping infectious or harmful bacterias out, such as H. Pylori or E. coli as they enter your stomach so you stay healthy and your digestion can rock it out in peace, sans pathogens. Though it creates an extremely acidic environment, the mucosal lining of your stomach protects it from, basically, being eaten alive (wouldn't that be uncomfortable). 


When heartburn comes out to play..

So its pretty apparent that we need HCL to keep digestion on track. When it's low we oftentimes experience discomfort via abdominal unrest, nausea, leaky gut (if HCL's been low for a while), and - you got it - heartburn. Heartburn happens when the esophageal sphincter, the flap at the bottom of your esophagus that creates a barrier so food only travels south into the stomach, abnormally allows HCL and other stomach secretions like bile flow upward into the throat. But wait, how exactly does low stomach acid play a part in this? 


In a lot of cases, low HCL is actually the main character. This is because without an adequate amount of stomach acid, carbohydrate malabsorption occurs and (bad) bacteria has a higher chance of overgrowing (that pH moves from 2 or 3 to a more bacteria-friendly 5 or above) - both common causes o

f bloating, gas, and overall digestive upset. This bloating and gas can trigger the stomach to expand, pushing the esophageal sphincter upwards, therefore allowing stomach acid to move north into the esophagus causing heartburn. 

Make sense now? 


Let's put out the fire.

Though its up to you and your primary caregiver, I'd never recommend a heartburn medication for the simple reason that many are actually meant to reduce stomach acid further. While they may provide temporary relief, we're all about the root cause here and you've got to dig a little deeper than popping a pill to take care of that uncomfortable heartburn. 


If I'm having consistent bouts of heartburn, it (not so coincidentally) usually happens during or after vacations, around times of indulgences, or even just during short travel trips when my meals and routine are not up to par. I know there's an imbalance that needs fixing and I've got to up my game to take care of putting out the fire. For me - and many others - this means taking a few key steps:

  • Avoid foods that aggravate: think red sauces, dairy, sugary drinks or treats, fatty or fried foods, spicy dishes, coffee + alcohol (I know, I know), and wheat + gluten-containing grains



  • Incorporate healing foods: plain unsweetened kefirs + yogurt (keep it DF if you don't handle dairy well), kraut + other ferments, bone broth (homemade is best), healthy fats like salmon + grass-fed ghee, and non-starchy veggies. 

  • Take your probiotic: While I first and foremost recommend eating probiotic-rich foods to get your daily dose of gut lovin' bacteria, like sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi and other fermented veggies, most people will benefit from taking a probiotic supplement. My favorites include...

  • Drink that ACV: I know, apple cider vinegar - or ACV - is not the most pleasant thing to down first thing in the morning or right before a scrumptious meal, but trust me on this one. By activating stomach acid production, the ACV actually helps to prep your stomach secretions before a meal, ideally stimulating HCL production so you can get through heartburn free.
    If you just can't do straight-up ACV, make your own vinegar drink by combining 1-2 tbsp ACV, 1/2 tbsp maple syrup, a dash of cinnamon + about 8 ounces of water. Stir or shake it all up, then drink it down. Be sure to use a high-quality, raw ACV with the "mother" (the bacteria colony that keeps it alive) like Bragg's


  • Just slow down: Stress is largely a factor in the occurrence of heartburn due to the fact that it can alter the state of your gut's flora, therefore creating an imbalanced environment where bad bacteria reign. Also, eating fast oftentimes leads to over-consuming, which can be a step towards over-expanding the belly - another reason the esophageal sphincter is pressured to open when its not supposed to. 
    Instead, take your time to chew mindfully, feel gratitude for your meal and your day, and just chill out, friend. PS - Need help grounding down? Check out a few ways I recommend to rest here

If you've cut back on obvious heartburn-inducing foods, keeping your gut happy, and still experiencing that nagging fire, it may be time to explore other root causes like food sensitivities, imbalanced gut flora or daily stress + anxiety. Check in with your primary doc or reach out to me to discuss a plan of action - life's too short to feel anything but your BEST self, babe! 


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