NIX THE RX FOR HEARTBURN AND TREAT GASTROINTESTINAL CONDITIONS WITH HOLISTIC APPROACHES INSTEAD.
If you have acid reflux or other discomfort in the digestive tract (including gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD), perhaps you have a prescription for one of the “proton pump inhibitors” (PPIs). The brand names include Nexium, Pepcid, Prevacid, Prilosec, Protonix and Zegerid, and they treat symptoms of the problem, but not the problem itself. Worldwide sales of these prescriptive medicines are in the billions of dollars.
But what might really give you heartburn is learning that these hugely profitable drugs might be entirely unnecessary. In fact, acid reflux is just one of many conditions and diseases of the digestive tract — others include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease — and all of them seem to be the focus of drug intervention. But the experience of doctors, patients and alternative or holistic health practitioners indicates something else: There are far more natural ways of settling your stomach and all the pipes leading to and away from it.
Hair health might be related to this as well. With a healthy diet and no gastrointestinal conditions, we absorb nutrients better. Our hair responds to good nutrition just the way other parts of our bodies do. Better nutrition gives us better hair and healthy skin as well.
Heartburn is a problem of the brain, not of the stomach
Even though gastrointestinal discomfort may seem to be a problem of the gut, much of it starts in the brain. The enteric nervous system is the network of nerves connecting the brain and the digestive system. It communicates with the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers a “flight or fight” response to perceived danger; this evolved as a signal to run away from the hungry lion lurking in the grass but is today more likely experienced through a call into the boss’s office. Simplifying things a bit, that kind of stress temporarily shuts down the digestive process because the body needs to focus on the lurking danger (the lion or your boss). It’s that shutdown that can lead to discomfort.
From that, some health professionals believe it makes more sense to address the cause, stress, rather than the symptom.
Howard Schubiner, M.D., director of the Mind-Body Medicine Center at St. John Providence Health System in Warren, Mich., concurs. He says, “The body does respond to stressful situations with real physiologic changes that produce real pain and other symptoms. However, it is also important to realize that the symptoms are not a sign of a disease process; i.e., there is no pathological process occurring.”
Schubiner’s research shows that stress triggers pain and other symptoms in the digestive system, as well as elsewhere in the body, depending on the individual. “Look carefully for the triggers that created or exacerbated the symptoms,” he advises. “These are typically difficulties in relationships, work issues, losses, financial pressures, and family problems. Now they know what is causing the symptoms and they can take steps to overcome them.”
We talked to more than a dozen people, professionals and patients, to find out how they suggest gastrointestinal discomfort and disease conditions be addressed without medications. The following is what they told us:
Prevent GI discomfort and heartburn in the first place
The consensus among the experts we spoke with was that a healthy diet was the basis of gastrointestinal health.
Nutritionist and naturopath Pam Popper, Ph.D.: “Healthy people are generally not even aware that their bodies are digesting food,” she says. “Unhealthy people, on the other hand, often experience discomfort and even pain as a result of digestion and elimination. In addition to discomfort and pain, digestive disorders contribute to the development of other issues, such as halitosis (bad breath), skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, iron deficiency, nutrient deficiencies, allergies, and bone loss.”
What’s her solution? “There are many causes of gastrointestinal disorders,” says Popper. “But the main causes are taking drugs like antibiotics, and diets rich in meat, dairy, fat, and refined foods. One of the by-products of certain drugs and poor diet is destruction of beneficial bacteria in the GI tract. Beneficial bacteria flourish on a diet that includes lots of plant foods, since their preferred [macro] nutrient is carbohydrates. Pathogenic bacteria such as parasites and yeasts prefer the remnants of animal foods. Adopting a program of dietary excellence can increase the population of friendly bacteria and decrease the population of unfriendly bacteria, and studies show that this effect begins within only a couple of weeks after positive dietary change.”
Registered dietitian Amie Ritchie: Through her clinical practice and Web site, Ritchie preaches the gospel of smart eating and stress management. “Controlling any GI issue starts with reducing stress levels for the patient, if possible,” she says. “Most GI issues can be controlled either partially or completely with diet. The dietary changes necessary vary depending on the specific issue at hand.” Ritchie says she works with patients who have IBS and GERD, and has succeeded with many “completely through stress reduction and diet.”
Author and licensed psychologist Frank Sileo, Ph.D.: Working with patients who have Crohn’s disease (Sileo himself has had Crohn’s) and other gastrointestinal diseases, Sileo has a special interest in where emotions and the intestinal tract meet. “I utilize cognitive behavior therapy for my IBS patients,” says Sileo. “I utilize guided imagery, mindfulness and relaxation training in addition to other nonpharmaceutical approaches to GI discomfort.”
Alleviate heartburn without the Rx
Even if problems cannot be prevented, they can be addressed with methods other than drugs.
Yoga therapist and movement educator Kim-Lien Kendall: “A lot of our clients experience these types of symptoms at times (whether chronic or acute), and I feel that we have been fairly successful in easing their discomfort,” she notes. “With the use of certain restorative yoga postures, education about the physiology of the digestive system, a little bit of manual manipulation and giving them a different attitude about their bodies, I believe these things really work.”
Sports nutrition coach Joanna K. Chodorowska: “For acid reflux and excess [stomach] acid, I would suggest baking soda in water but only if the client does not have sodium intake issues. I also suggest the clients change the way they eat. Stop drinking liquids with the meals, and focus on sitting down and chewing the food into a puree; then only swallow food once it is pureed. If it is too dry, either add more green leafy vegetables or keep on chewing! The body does not digest chunks of food. The biggest problem with digestion is that most people are not producing the acid they need to digest the proteins.”
Medical hypnotist Michael Ellner: A medical hypnotist and wellness coach, Ellner teaches courses in hypnotic pain relief, effective communication and creative stress management to doctors, dentists, nurses and other frontline pain clinicians. He wrote “IBS Relief: A Workbook for IBS,” which includes mental exercises, breathing techniques, meditation and visualization as means to control the painful bowel condition.
Acupuncture, heartburn and GI
A number of professionals in holistic pain management offer that the traditional Chinese treatment, acupuncture, can be effective in using the nervous system to combat problems with digestion and directional flow of the digestive tract.
Licensed acupuncturist Kristen Lohman Burris, M.S.T.O.M.: According to Burris, “Acupuncture has been proven to be effective in the treatment of GERD, IBS, constipation, nausea and diarrhea. It is recognized by the World Health Organization and National Institutes of Health. In a study published in the journal Digestion, acupuncture was found effective for treating Crohn’s disease.”
The study Burris refers to was conducted in Germany, where 51 patients with mild to moderately active Crohn’s disease experienced improvement after 10 acupuncture treatments (S. Joos, B. Brinkhaus, C. Maluche et al., “Acupuncture and Moxibustion in the Treatment of Active Crohn’s Disease: A Randomized Controlled Study,”Digestion, 2004: 69). Another study out of Taiwan (American Journal of Physiology—Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, 2005) found similar results in the treatment of GERD.
Chinese medicine specialist Becca Seitz: Another acupuncturist who weighed in with her experiences, Seitz speaks about working with individual patients, emphasizing that one treatment does not fit all. “In Chinese medicine we look at a patient’s specific symptoms to get our diagnosis,” she says. “For example, someone who is experiencing heartburn and is a type A personality is diagnosed differently than someone who has heartburn and is more on the depressed side.”
This individualization leads to better outcomes and fewer unintended results. “From our diagnosis, we are able to pick acupuncture points and create an individualized herbal formula for the patient,” says Seitz. “Because our treatments are individualized to the patient, very few experience side effects. If they do experience side effects, unlike biomedications, we are able to modify our treatment in order to avoid creating unwanted side effects. The best part about Chinese medical treatment of digestive complaints is that our goal is to help the patient to not need any sort of intervention.”
Health and nutrition counselor Gina Van Luven: Luven suffered from “myriad gastrointestinal issues from childhood into my 30s,” she says. “Having been on several medications, I can tell you they don’t work. About ten years ago, I abandoned my meds and sought out natural treatments. Within about a year, all my symptoms were gone and I was healed.” The treatments included acupuncture, but also “[I] removed all artificial dyes and preservatives from my diet, processed sugar, wheat and dairy. I ate primarily whole grains and vegetables with very little meat. I also took a blend of herbs to help rebuild my intestinal lining, which had been destroyed by food and antibiotics. Today, I eat primarily whole foods with some animal products and organic processed foods.”
I’ll share my own experience with GERD, which I had from adolescence through my early 30s. I could taste stomach acids in my throat during any time of stress, which included a high school swim career on a championship team, on through college and a solid decade in the high-anxiety world of public relations. For a period of time, I was on prescriptive medicine (Pepcid). I began to get a gravel-like voice, which was the result of irritating acids causing polyps to grow on my vocal cords. The polyps were surgically removed, after which I set on a path of healthier living. That included a career switch and eating unprocessed foods.
All symptoms of reflux disease are now gone, and I am grateful because acid reflux is strongly associated with esophageal cancer — something I certainly hope to avoid. At least for me, no meds were necessary.