Heartburn or acid reflux is a widespread problem affecting millions of people daily. Unfortunately, studies have shown that commonly prescribed heartburn medications like Nexium, Prilosec, and Prevacid are associated with serious long-term side effects, including increased risk of pneumonia, higher risk of fractures, deficiencies in critical nutrients including vitamin C, calcium, iron and magnesium, and most recently–increased risk of dementia.
While these medications can be helpful in the short term for treatment of ulcers or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), they were not intended for long-term use. You may not realize that there are many natural strategies that can greatly help heartburn, and in some cases resolve the problem without drugs.
In holistic medicine, heartburn can have a number of different root causes, including food sensitivities, low digestive enzymes, intestinal bacterial overgrowth, fungal or parasitic infections, stress, and even paradoxically low stomach acid (rather than excessive acid).
Lifestyle measures always should be the first step in treatment–quitting smoking, reducing intake of fried/processed foods, eating dinner well before bedtime, and losing excess weight (which increases abdominal pressure and contributes to reflux). In addition, avoiding well-known dietary triggers, including caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, mint, spicy foods, and overeating can be helpful.
Let’s discuss 12 natural approaches to treating heartburn that I have found helpful for many people:
- GFCF DIET: Food sensitivities may play a role in heartburn. The GFCF (gluten-free casein-free diet) is often recommended with good results. Even if you do not have celiac disease, it is possible to have mild or moderate gluten sensitivity, termed non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Studies on patients with NCGS find that reflux is a common symptom. After a few weeks of eliminating gluten, you can try eliminating casein (found in dairy products) to see if that makes an additional difference.
- BITTERS: Bitters are traditional herbal tonics that have been used for centuries to improve digestion. Try Angostura or Swedish bitters mixed in a little seltzer water before meals, which can stimulate the production of your digestive enzymes and thereby reduce reflux.
- GINGER: Some people with reflux have slow gastric motility, meaning that their food remains in their stomach for a long time, predisposing to reflux of stomach contents into the esophagus. Research has shown that ginger helps with gastric motility, and thus can alleviate reflux by promoting the normal movement of food through the digestive system.
- APPLE CIDER VINEGAR: Apple cider vinegar (ACV) can help those who have heartburn triggered paradoxically by low stomach acid. A trial of 1-2 teaspoons of ACV dissolved in 8 ounces of water before meals helps stimulate acid production. If you feel increased burning, stop taking immediately. However, if this reduces your heartburn symptoms, it may be beneficial.
- MELATONIN: One study found that taking 3 mg of melatonin at night can help reduce symptoms of reflux. Melatonin is a hormone produced both in the brain and the gut that regulates sleep and has other digestive effects. Studies show that people with reflux have lower melatonin than normal, which is why supplementation can be helpful.
- D-LIMONENE: Derived from citrus peels, D-limonene is a natural compound that promotes normal GI function and has shown promise for treating GERD after just a short course of treatment. The suggested dose is a single 1000 mg capsule every other day for 10 doses over 20 days. After that it can be used as needed. Various brands are available, such as this one.
- PROBIOTICS: Bacterial overgrowth can contribute to gastroesophageal reflux disease, and probiotics can help restore the balance of beneficial bacteria. It’s best to select a probiotic with a practitioner’s help but soil-based probiotics such as this one can be beneficial in some cases.
- DGL: Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine. Its traditional use is to relieve discomfort from heartburn, indigestion, or stomach ulcers. I recommend chewing 2 tablets 15 minutes before meals twice a day. Licorice can sometimes raise blood pressure, but DGL does not have this effect and appears safe for long-term use.
- ALOE VERA JUICE: In Ayurveda, aloe vera juice is considered one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory and gut-healing foods. Try consuming 1/2 cup of aloe vera juice twice a day before meals for a few weeks to see if it improves your digestive symptoms.
- LOW-CARB DIET: Studies have shown that very low-carb diets can actually be extremely helpful for heartburn, especially if you are overweight. While low-carb diets can be therapeutic in the short term, they should not be followed indefinitely. I would suggest working with a nutritionist for more guidance.
- BETAINE HCL: A powerful way to combat low stomach acid is to take the supplement Betaine HCL, which stimulates stomach acid production. Do NOT take if you have a known history of ulcers. It’s best to take this under the supervision of a practitioner but this article will give you some initial ideas.
- STRESS REDUCTION: Chronic stress can contribute to heartburn and other digestive disturbances over time. Practicing a mind-body stress reduction technique, such as yoga, visualization, progressive relaxation, or meditation can be helpful. Watching guided videos on YouTube can be a good place to start.
There are various natural supplements (such as this one or this one) that blend several of these different ingredients to help treat heartburn and digestive disorders. While they can be helpful in the short term, if the underlying root causes are not addressed, symptoms may return. If you are not improving, consult with your local practitioner. You should be tested at least once for infection with H. Pylori, a bacteria that can contribute to ulcers and digestive symptoms. Additional testing can uncover food sensitivities, bacterial or fungal overgrowth, and other hidden causes of GERD.
What have you found particularly helpful for heartburn? Please share in the comments below.