Can Heartburn Come From an Underactive Stomach?
It seems natural to assume that the unpleasant, painful, and distressing symptoms of heartburn come from too much stomach acid. Medical professionals often prescribe drugs that will suppress stomach acid to reduce heartburn. Antacids and drugs like Zantac or Nexium may provide short-term heartburn relief, but they don’t address the underlying cause of heartburn.
Oftentimes, it is actually an underactive stomach at the root of heartburn symptoms. This occurs when your stomach produces too little digestive acid and can no longer efficiently digest food.
The name for this is Hypochlorhydria or insufficient stomach acid. Modern lifestyles encourage Hypochlorhydria with busy lifestyles, sugar, caffeine, nicotine, and processed foods. When we feel stressed or hurried, our bodies naturally direct attention away from digestion. Not to mention that most of us do not take the time to chew our food – a vital step in the digestive process, and the only one we can consciously control.
How can you have too little stomach acid but get heartburn? The mechanism is simple. Food stays in your stomach longer than it should because acid isn’t digesting your food quickly enough. Undigested food produces gas which pushes up on your esophageal valve creating the sensation of heartburn.
The amount of stomach acid we produce naturally decreases with age — another reason why we may experience more heartburn as we grow older. Clients often come to me baffled by digestive symptoms resulting from foods they could once enjoy freely.
This isn’t always the case, of course. Sometimes heartburn is caused by over production of stomach acid. This is known as Hyperchlorhydria – often diagnosed as GERD. So it is important not to assume anything. But keep in mind both possibilities exist and just treating symptoms may not help you get to the root cause.
Other symptoms of insufficient stomach acid and an underactive stomach in addition to heartburn include:
- Bloating, feeling full after a meal, and belching
- Feeling heavy and sleepy after a meal
- Longitudinal striations on fingernails, thin and brittle nails and hair
- Undigested food in stool
- Frequent constipation
- Problems with Candida (yeast)
What can be done to boost your stomach acid and digestive activity?
- Eat small meals more frequently throughout the day.
- Avoid overeating: eat only until you are 80% full
- Avoid eating large amounts of animal protein in a single meal.
- Pair animal protein with non-starchy vegetables instead of bread and potatoes.
- Drink only enough fluid to comfortably enjoy your meal — excessive liquids with a meal will dilute digestive acids and enzymes.
- Take a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice or apple cider vinegar mixed with water before meals to stimulate stomach acids.
- Skip dessert: sugar slows digestion and if you’ve eaten meat, will produce undesirable putrefaction (food rotting) that can lead to heartburn.
Eat mindfully: slow down, chew food well, and avoid technology at mealtimes. Expressing gratitude before meals is healthy for your body and spirit. Invoking positive feelings before and as you eat will support your parasympathetic nervous system and enable it to do its work of digesting food by stimulating stomach acid production. Your body will relax and be better prepared to use the nutrition you are consuming at mealtime. For more on slowing down, head over to this post.
If you’ve made these changes and still experience symptoms like heartburn, you could need extra support. There are several digestive supplements that can help, but it is extremely important to get the right advice for you. I can help with a personalized strategy that is safe and effective so don’t hesitate to reach out!