In 2010 the American Pharmacists Association posted that Americans spent a combined $16 billion on prescription and over the counter antacid medications. To call this an alarming trend is an understatement. And with so much cash going out, are folks better? No. Because antacids are no solution. At best they are band aids, and at worst they suppress an action to perpetuate the problem and cause side effects.
In this 2 part article series, I will describe the difference between hyper and low acidity, and lay out herbal energetics and approaches for each. It’s time to embrace a new path to optimal digestion, and realize that our health does not lie in a bottle of pink liquid, crunchy colorful pills, or fizzy drinks.
Digestive distress is a miserable affliction. For the sufferer there may be constant belching, vomiting, spasms, burning and constipation or diarrhea when food is consumed. As time wears on, other complications arise. Our ability to assimilate nutrients is weakened, the function of our immune and other organ systems is decreased and there is an ever increasing amount of stress put on our nervous system.
Unfortunately, the cycle of ill digestion is perpetuated by the emotional distress which accompanies it. And for many, comfort is often served on a plate. A plate that is typically filled with foods that further fuel digestive woes. This makes plotting a course to heal quite difficult.
In the past, we were taught that the way to silence the gut pain was suppress stomach acid. That it was the culprit. Many were told that they wouldn’t have to change what they consume to do so. In support of this theory, drug companies have, over the course of time, risen to meet the consumers need for antacids.
Since 1928, when Rolaids and Tums were invented, there have been scores more prescription and over the counter remedies advertising relief. The price for said relief, though, is not merely monetary. Constant and long term use of these drugs also bears side effects which are nearly as uncomfortable as the dysfunction they were made to treat. Side effects are contingent on the type of antacid used, as well as the person. Because there are too many to mention here I refer you to this web site for a complete breakdown, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/drug-information/DR602357/DSECTION=side-effects.
Thankfully, people have begun to change their approach to digestive health. Information about antacids being a short term solution with aforementioned side effects has driven those who have reached for them to seek out alternatives. And people who were once slow to change their diets are embracing the need to do so more and more. They are charting what triggers discomfort, and eliminating offending agents as they realize that popping pills is not enough.
But there are still some important points lacking in treatment. One is that many folks are being treated and self medicating for hyper acidity when they actually have low acidity. Also, whether the person has an overproduction or underproduction of HCL (hydrochloric acid), there is a need to move beyond managing symptoms and do the work of healing the gut.
In part 1 of this article series, I will address why stomach acid is important. Inform you of simple home tests you can do to determine if you have an underproduction or overproduction of HCL, and outline sample herbal approaches to help heal the gut, manage symptoms associated with hyperacidity. In part 2 I will detail some of the benefits of pre and probiotics, enzyme and vitamin supplementation, and outline herbal strategies for under production of HCL.
Some Causes of Digestive Dysfunction
Digestion is weakened by many factors in our lives. It would take a book to outline them all and pay them fair attention, but I will mention the most common ones here.
• Stress diminishes function by passing on nervousness and agitation to the stomach, increasing or decreasing HCl, depending on the person. Stress hormones weaken digestion by moving energy to the heart and respiratory tract, and blood away from digestive organs to the periphery. This is where energy is needed in fight or flight.
• Processed foods lack nutrition, are complex to breakdown, and often contain artificial and offensive ingredients. They can decrease nutrient absorption by causing inflammation and congestion in the lymph node containing villa of the small intestine. This is where a majority of absorption occurs. Processed foods may also contain hydrogenated fats, which cause body-wide inflammation and are hard on the liver, further decreasing digestive power. They also contain sugar and highly processed carbohydrates, which I will address next.
• Refined sugars shock the stomach(creating too much acid), the liver and pancreas. In doing so, they adversely affect digestion and absorption, and become food for bad bowel bacteria. Sugar passing too quickly into the bloodstream causes mood imbalances along with the nutritional deficiencies.
• Caffeine in coffee, tea, chocolate, cocoa, soft drinks, diet pills, aspirin and analgesics for migraines increase calcium excretion in urine, stimulate production of the stress hormone adrenaline (one of the hormones spoken of in the blurb about stress), and cause food to move through intestinal tract too fast. This decreases the rate of assimilation and absorption of nutrients.
• Abuse of alcohol and drugs depletes digestive energy. It is hard on all digestive organs and organs of elimination. It weakens the integrity of the intestinal wall, thinning it and causing leaky gut syndrome, can increase acidity in the stomach, destroys the liver and kidney and is hard on the pancreas.
• Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have ill effects on the liver, kidney, and lining of the intestinal wall as well, being a major cause of leaky gut syndrome.
The Role of Gastric Acid and Hydrochloric Acid
Once food is chewed and swallowed, it meets its fate in the stomach, where gastric acid, among other things, is secreted. Gastric acid contains small amounts of hydrochloric acid (HCl), coupled with potassium chloride and sodium chloride.
Gastric acid stimulates the conversion of enzymes to begin protein digestion. Proper breakdown in the stomach allows food to properly move through the lower stages of digestion, thereby ensuring the balance and health of digestive organs and healthy bowel flora. Without this step, the small intestine is stressed, which passes the difficulty on to the large intestine/colon. Balance, over time, becomes skewed, and one is more prone to low levels of good bacteria in the ascending colon, and is prone to food allergies.
As for HCl, it is a part of the enzyme conversion process. But it has its own purpose as well. HCl sterilizes food by eradicating bacteria. This ensures the integrity of the bowel by protecting it from infection.
Too much or too little HCl will lead to digestive dysfunctions. And acute problems can, over time, easily morph into chronic conditions. I will address the symptoms and maladies associated with each in their respective categories.
HCA Self Test
With all this talk of over or under production of HCl, how is one to know which they are? When it comes down to it, the symptoms of each are similar. I recommend a simple test to decipher.
With symptoms, take a teaspoon of either apple cider vinegar or fresh squeezed lemon juice. They stimulate HCl. If your symptoms are helped, then you can guess that an under production of hydrochloric acid is your problem. If they are further worsened, an overproduction is indeed your problem. (If your symptoms worsen, drinking water can assist in neutralizing the stomach acid.)
This test can be complicated by certain dietary triggers. If someone is eating foods that they may be allergic to or are regularly bothered by, this will affect the outcome of the test. If your problem is chronic and persists no matter what you consume, then the test will be accurate. It is important that an elimination diet accompany the HCl self test and the herbal protocol to ensure better therapeutic results.
Acidic Conditions of the Stomach, Energetics and Herbal Approaches for Healing
Once you have determined whether you have too much or too little HCl, it is time to plot your course of action. To help, I will outline the herbal energetics and symptom pictures of excess HCl. Remember, you will take into account your condition or diagnosis, your symptom picture, diet, and the fact that repairing damage done and restoring digestive function is the long term goal. I will suggest some sample formulas.
If you don’t have a diagnosed disease, but still have issues with over acidity, you can still follow the recommendations given, or tailor them to suit your needs.
Energetics define the action of the plant. One plant can have many energetic actions. This is a good thing. It means smaller formulas/combinations of plant medicines for healing.
• Antacid is an agent that suppresses hydrochloric acid. In herbal medicine, the antacids action is balanced with other energetic properties as well. Full suppression is not the goal, but balancing production of the acid is. My favorite antacids to are chamomile and licorice. Others that I also use are marshmallow root and meadowsweet.
• Anti-bacterial agents have direct action against bacteria. And bacteria can sometimes be can be a complicating factor in healing the stomach. Herbal anti-bacterial’s do not have ill effects on healthy bowel flora, and are not near as strong as antibiotic drugs. In gastrointestinal health, I recommend anti-bacterial agents once in a while. Plants employed for such have positive effects on the tone and health of mucous membranes (see mucosal tonics). Licorice and goldenseal are good ones to know.
• Anti-inflammatory plants reduce inflammation. Where there is irritation there is inflammation, especially if the condition is chronic. My absolute favorites for reducing inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract are chamomile and licorice. Catnip and marshmallow are a close second. (Note: Marshmallow root (Althea office.) must be taken as a tea. To make the tea, use 1 tablespoon per cup of water. Bring the two to a boil, and turn off the stove. Let it sit for about 4 hours, strain and drink. I don’t recommend using marshmallow root with other supplements or herbs. It is so demulcent it can deter absorption of other things.)
• Anti-spasmodics relieve and relax small muscle spasms. The spasms may be caused by dryness and inflammation in the lining adversely affecting the muscle. Anti-spasmodics that are best for hyperacidity are demulcent, thereby relieving this dryness and irritation. They are chamomile, licorice, fennel and catnip.
• Carminatives relieve gas and bloating that can cause intestinal spasms. Caraway is probably one of the most potent. It tends to be quite drying, but can also aid the digestion of fats. I prefer to employ catnip and fennel in the beginning, and use caraway in the later stages of healing if something stronger is needed.
• Demulcent plants soothe and moisten irritated mucus membranes. They are typically anti-inflammatory and can be anti-spasmodic. Chamomile, plantain, marshmallow and licorice are best.
• Mucosal tonics aid healing of the mucous membranes. Mucous secreted by the lining of the stomach neutralizes the stomach acid, but also protects by coating tissue. If there is damage to the membranes or dryness persists, one is more prone to HCl damaging the stomach lining. Plants to employ here are goldenseal, chamomile and plantain. (I might add that goldenseal, while anti-bacterial and a mucosal tonic, is also very drying, and should be used in small amounts-no more than 3-5 drops, 3 times daily.)
• Nervine tonics calm the nervous system, and restore normalcy where there was once overstimulation. Obvious choices for hyperacidity are chamomile and catnip.
• Styptics stop and reduce bleeding. This is sometimes important if one experiences bleeding regularly. Yarrow and shepherds purse are excellent choices if a styptic is necessary.
Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease, known as GERD, is a severe presentation of hyperacidity. In this condition, gastric juices flow up causing heartburn, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and pain around the heart. Stress and mild to severe anxiety can also accompany GERD.
Another condition of excess HCl is acute or chronic gastritis, which may or may not be accompanied by gastric ulcers. It involves an inflammation of the lining of the stomach, ‘blown-up’ feeling with gas and no appetite, heart burn, nausea, vomiting, possible ulcer.
While I have used all of the plants above, plus a few, to reduce symptoms of excess HCl in my practice, I do have some favorites. I also have some favorite formulas.
Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis or Matricaria recutita) is a wonderful plant ally. It is antacid, carminative, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, a mucosal tonic, ulcer protective and inactivates toxins produced by bad bacteria. Chamomile also increases the bowels ability to heal from Candida overgrowth when taken with acidophilus, aiding restoration of healthy bowel flora.
But it doesn’t stop there. It’s a nervine tonic whose mildly sedative effects yield positive results with mild anxiety. Chamomile can reduce the physical symptoms of hyperacidity as well as the emotional ones.
Sipping the tea between meals is effective, though I have used it in a tincture 20 minutes before meals. What I often recommend, if my client is so inclined, is to have them sip the tea between meals, and also take a mealtime tincture in a formula.
To make to tea, steep 1-2 tbsp. in hot water for 5-10 min. Drink 3-4 cups per day.
In the tincture, I feel it is important to also add more potent carminatives. They help ease flatulence, and further assist the anti-spasmodic nature of the disease.
Catnip and chamomile make a wonderful combination. Catnip is a nervine relaxant, much like chamomile, with a hint of pungency-in rhythm with its mint roots. It is demulcent, anti-spasmodic and carminative. It relaxes nerves and muscles associated with tension and irritable conditions of the bowel.
Licorice (Glycyerrhiza glabra) was historically used to treat excess stomach acid. It is antacid, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, a potent anti-spasmodic and demulcent, and mucosal tonic. Licorice is also an adaptogen, helping tonify the adrenal glands to lessen the effects of stress on the body.
But licorice also causes water retention in certain individuals, a nuisance of a side effect with many who have acid reflux. Some find success with deglycyrrhized licorice, thus avoiding the water retention. I prefer to use American licorice (Glycyerrhiza lepidota) instead, but only if I feel it is specific enough.
While Am. licorice grows here, it is difficult to come by. I therefore tend to reach for chamomile more often. It has proved to be better suited for those with anxiety and excess acidity then licorice.
• Sample tincture formula for GERD or gastritis: chamomile, catnip, and fennel; use equal parts of each along with 2 cups of chamomile tea between meals (avoid sweetener as it can increase stomach acid). Take 15-30 drops of tincture at least 20 minutes before meals.
• Gastritis tincture with an ulcer: chamomile, fennel, licorice (using the licorice 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off). Use the chamomile tea between meals, and try juicing raw cabbage juice, drinking 1-2 oz. between meals daily. Take 15-30 drops of the tincture 20 min. before meals.
• Tincture for acidity with constipation: chamomile, catnip, fennel, turkey rhubarb; 1 part of chamomile and catnip to ½ parts fennel and turkey rhubarb. Take 30 drops 20 min. before meals.
• Acidity with excessively dry and hot condition: sip marshmallow root tea between meals; tincture of equal parts chamomile and fennel, take 30 drops 20 min. before meals.
If you need something more specific formulated or added, you can refer to the energetics.
Word of caution: Liver and gallbladder insufficiency often occur with excess hydrochloric acid and should be addressed after a successful treatment plan has been implemented. But stimulating bitters are contraindicated for the beginning of the therapy, especially if there is a gastric or duodenal ulcer. If they are used at all one should monitor symptoms, as stimulating bitters can increase stomach acid further exacerbating the problem.
Important Supplements to Assist
Hyperacidity and the damage it causes the digestive tract benefits from a couple of supplements. One is the use of probiotics to help repopulate bowel flora in the colon. And the second is a good enzyme supplement to support the job of food breakdown while the body regenerates function. I will go into the details of this in part II.
The Next Step
Once the diet is balanced to agree with the individual, and healing herbs and supplements are in place, the best thing you can do is be consistent, and let your new choices do their work. If you begin to feel better, keep doing what you’re doing.
And remember, this is a general guide. If you have questions or want further guidance ask someone with experience in herbal or alternative medicine who works with digestive complaints.
The practice of popping antacids will not fuel our bodies. They are no substitute for a healthy lifestyle. While it can take time and effort to implement your new practice, I feel it is time well spent. In the end, the body will remember a more functional and balanced way, and your gut will heal.