My first episode of heartburn was so intense that I can remember it to this day. It was New Year’s Eve over twenty years ago. I was celebrating with a group of good friends by sharing a catered dinner from our favorite Indian restaurant. The food was spicy and abundant, we ate late, and we washed it down with plenty of alcohol. Looking back, it was the perfect storm waiting to happen. I woke up in the wee hours of the New Year with what felt like a three-alarm fire blazing in my chest and wondering, what new kind of hell I had brought upon myself.
While I like to think I’m unique, when it comes to heartburn, I’m not alone. About 50 million Americans suffer from heartburn—and an estimated 23 million experience symptoms daily. Heartburn, also called acid reflux, gastro esophageal reflux disease, or GERD, does not typically occur from you having too much stomach acid. Instead, its symptoms come from the loosening of the lower esophageal sphincter—a muscle at the bottom of your esophagus—that allows the acid to escape upward causing an uncomfortable and painful burning sensation.
In some circles, all heartburn is created equal, but not so in Chinese medicine. If you go to an acupuncturist for relief, they will diagnose one of a couple of different causes of your reflux misery. You may have a pattern of the Liver invading your Stomach, in which stress or emotional upsets are a big player. With this pattern, the most notable factor is that when you’re stressed out, your symptoms are worse.
You may also have heartburn from something called food stagnation. This means that you’re not digesting your food effectively, and it’s sitting around and repeating on you. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as eating food that’s hard to digest, eating too much of it, or eating too fast.
Another common pattern associated with heartburn is Stomach heat. Basically, your stomach is working overtime and gets inflamed and hot. With this pattern, you might experience burning pain in the area of your stomach, thirst for cold drinks, and red inflamed gums.
Because the source of your heartburn is not one size fits all, how your acupuncturist treats it will also be unique to your specific symptoms. That said, however, they are likely to combine acupuncture, a Chinese herbal formula and dietary and lifestyle suggestions to ease your symptoms.
In addition, there are some things that you can do at home to help put out the fire in your esophagus. Among them:
-Eat smaller meals. Overeating makes it harder for you to digest your food and increases the likelihood of acid backing up into your esophagus.
-Eat slower. Sit. Relax. Chew your food. It’s very difficult to have good digestion when you bolt your food in 30 seconds while standing up.
-Make sure you’re done eating a good two to three hours before you go to bed. This is a positional issue. If you lie down after eating, your chances of having heartburn increase dramatically.
-Do what it takes to deal with your stress. In the clinic, I have found that stress is singlehandedly the most aggravating factor in causing heartburn flare-ups.
-Bump up your fiber intake. Fiber keeps food moving right along. Interestingly, there is a connection between constipation and heartburn. Apparently, slow digestion causes problems everywhere.
-Avoid foods that are known to relax your esophageal sphincter. They include mint, coffee (regular and decaf), chocolate, alcohol, processed meats, and carbonated beverages. In addition, greasy, high fat, and deep fried foods slow down your digestion, increasing your chances for reflux.
-Pay attention to your own personal food triggers. Back in the day, I couldn’t eat onions, strawberries, orange juice, spaghetti sauce, or alcohol. If it’s not readily apparent what foods are offending, keep a diary of what you’ve eaten and your symptoms.
-Try a pinch of baking soda. Dissolve about ¼ teaspoon of baking soda into a tablespoon or two of water and drink it down. The baking soda temporarily neutralizes the acid, causes you to burp, and relieves the burn.
-Happily, I no longer suffer from heartburn. It took some acupuncture, a little tweaking of my diet, laying off the alcohol, and eating more reasonable sized portions. With a little help, you can be flame-free, too.