Many people suffer from GERD also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease. This is often accurately described as stomach acid in the wrong place. The piece that many people get wrong is that they believe this is caused by too much stomach acid. In fact, it is almost always caused by too little stomach acid.
GERD is most commonly the result of a dysfunction in the lower esophageal sphincter. When this sphincter weakens, what little stomach acid is present backs up into the esophagus. The mucosal lining of the esophagus is not coated in the same way that the stomach is, so the stomach acid causes irritation to the esophagus that results in a burning sensation. If this occurs over a prolonged period of time, the pepsin in the stomach acid, which is a protein digesting enzyme, actually starts to digest the tissue in the esophagus. This causes inflammation that eventually, if left untreated, can lead to cancer.
So, what weakens the lower esophageal sphincter?
There are several factors that can weaken this valve. One of the most common reasons is low magnesium. Magnesium is listed as one of the top 10 mineral deficiencies in the United States. It used to be that magnesium was available in vegetables but, with soil erosion and the consumption of more processed foods, magnesium is not as readily available in our diets as it used to be. Magnesium is associated with over 300 biochemical reactions in the human body and is connected to irregularities in heart beat, sore muscles, headaches and more. (Before you decide that you are “just aging,” try taking a magnesium supplement.)
Another factor is stress. People joke about how much stress they are under but, the truth of the matter, is stress is no laughing matter. Stress, whether it is physical such as breaking a bone or having surgery, or emotional, elevates a hormone called cortisol. When cortisol is elevated, everything slows down: metabolism is slowed, bowel movements become problematic, and the immune system becomes suppressed. When the immune system becomes suppressed, stomach acid production declines, and bacteria that normally belong in our gut, overgrow and cause problems.
Do you see the connection yet?
The lower esophageal sphincter is a muscle that has been weakened by low magnesium. Stomach acid is lowered either by the aforementioned stress, poor eating hygiene discussed in a previous blog, a high sugar diet, refined carbohydrates, a microbial imbalance, or age. When stomach acid is low, the rate at which the stomach empties is sluggish. This allows the mix of food and stomach acid, known as chyme, to ferment and the fermentation produces gas. This, in turn, causes bloating, pain, discomfort and… puts pressure on the lower esophageal valve which allows it to open when it shouldn’t and allows stomach acid that does not belong in the esophagus, into that space.
Maybe suppressing stomach acid with protein pump inhibitors or antacids is not such a great idea.
Working with a Functional Medicine Health Coach can help identify if this is the concern in your individual body and help you find natural approaches for increasing stomach acid which I will touch on in my next blog.
Until then, if you can relate to this article, start a magnesium supplement such as magnesium glycinate and work on reducing your stress through meditation, taking time to walk outside, or calling a friend.
Missy Cohen, MPH, Certified Functional Medicine Health Coach is available for individual consults at Just Breathe in Westborough, Massachusetts by phone or in person.