Most people believe heartburn and GERD are due to too much stomach acid. So most people will take drugs to lower their stomach acid levels (antacids) to provide relief. For many people antacids do provide relief, but they do little to fix the REAL CAUSE of heartburn or GERD. The truth is, too little stomach acid (not too much) is the REAL CAUSE of heartburn and GERD.
Heartburn and GERD has serious ‘side effects’
10-20% of the Western world experience symptoms at least once per week. (1) In other words, many millions of people in each country like the U.S., Canada, and Europe have symptoms of GERD. The number of people getting GERD is also increasing. (2)
In Canada, people suffering from GERD symptoms are absent from work 16% of each year. This is equal to $21 billion in costs or 1.7 billion hours of lost production each year. (3)
Heartburn often isn’t taken seriously, but our knowledge about it is changing. We now know heartburn and GERD can turn into some serious problems if you don’t address the underlying cases of it. This includes problems with absorbing food, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), gut infections, and cancer.
Problem with the ‘too much stomach acid’ theory
If you ask the average person they would tell you heartburn is caused by too much stomach acid. This belief system has been engrained into us for decades.
Figure 1. Stomach acid secretion from the second to eight decade (from Wright, 2001, p.20)
If heartburn was caused by too much stomach acid you would see teenagers popping Tums and Rolaids instead of the elderly wouldn’t you? But that’s not what we see is it?
Dr. Jonathan Wright, author of Why Stomach Acid is Good For You, finds low stomach acid production in most people over the age of 40 suffering with heartburn and GERD. In fact, when his clinic tests this group of people, they find low stomach acid over 90 percent of the time.
Furthermore, Wright and other doctors find if they give stomach acid supplements (betaine hydrochloric acid with pepsin), to these people, nearly all of them improve. If these conditions were caused by too much stomach acid, we would expect these cases to get worse wouldn’t we?
Too much stomach acid is rare. It is found in a rare condition called Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome, but it is hardly ever associated with heartburn and GERD.
Symptoms do not equal the Cause
Heartburn and GERD symptoms are caused by stomach acid refluxing into the esophagus. It’s important to understand that ANY amount of stomach acid in the esophagus is going to cause heartburn. This is because the lining of the esophagus is delicate and isn’t protected like the stomach. You don’t have to have excess acid in your stomach to get heartburn.
I understand why patients think their GERD and heartburn is due to too much stomach acid. Their antacids and PPIs do indeed give them relief.
However, relief of symptoms does not mean you are fixing the underlying cause of the problem. Western medicine focuses on getting rid of the symptom rather than finding and fixing the underlying cause of the symptom. This is pretty obvious when they give antacids to lower stomach acid to treat heartburn and GERD – problems which are caused by low stomach acid.
This is like putting a piece of masking tape over top of the engine light that goes on in your car. Sure we got rid of that annoying engine light (symptom), but the obvious cause of the engine light turning on is in the engine itself. And what happens if you continue to ignore the engine problem? The car doesn’t run as powerful and as efficient. In the end, either the engine dies or you get one expensive problem to try and fix.
What happens if you ignore heartburn and GERD?
Ignoring the underlying cause heartburn and GERD (low stomach acid) can actually make you worse.
Curing a disease means you get rid of the disease and it doesn’t come back.
In the next series of articles I will talk about how low stomach acid causes heartburn, GERD, and other gut problems. I will also look what the causes of low stomach acid are and what you can do to prevent it.
- Sharp GS, Fister HW. The diagnosis and treatment of achlorhydria: ten-year study. J Amer Ger Soc 1967;15:786-791.