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Lynne Brown
BSc Hons, HDE, Dip Clin Nutr

Those of you who have experienced heartburn know all about the intense burning sensation and pain in the stomach and/or chest, behind the breastbone. Sometimes the pain even extends to the neck, throat and face. It may be accompanied by bloating, gas, nausea, shortness of breath and / or a sour taste in the throat.

The cause

The oesophagus is the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. The lower oesophagus has a specialized muscle around it that usually stays tightly closed, preventing stomach acid from surging upwards and opening only to allow food and liquid into the stomach. However if this specialized muscle weakens, stomach acid can slip past it into the oesophagus, causing inflammation and pain. This entire problem has acquired the name of GERD or Gastro-esophageal Reflux Disease (using US spelling of oesophagus).


A number of factors, including certain foods, may cause the lower oesophageal muscle to relax, causing GERD. Ulcers, gallbladder problems, stress, allergies and enzyme deficiencies are other possible contributing factors. People with hiatal hernia often experience heartburn.


Do not ignore symptoms of GERD. Chronic frequent heartburn is a risk factor for the development of the fastest rising cancer in white men in the US: oesophageal cancer. With prolonged irritation of the lower part of the oesophagus from repeated reflux, the cells lining the oesophagus may change resulting in a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus, which may lead to oesophageal cancer. Also the narrowing of the oesophagus from reflux makes swallowing solid foods increasingly more difficult, giving a sensation of a lump in the throat.

Avoid antacids.

Many people take antacids of some kind on a regular basis, and they actually believe that they are a safe solution from their digestion problems.  Nothing could be further from the truth, as antacids actually do more harm than good. Thousands of people die each year from oesophageal cancer, and its major warning symptom is heartburn.  Antacids not only interfere with normal digestion, but they also mask symptoms of the real underlying problems.  Hydrochloric acid in the stomach is extremely necessary for every cellular and enzyme function in the body.  It is also needed to kill harmful bacteria. When antacids block the production of this acid, digestion is incomplete and results in fibrous parts of food remaining in the digestive system. Supplemented digestive enzymes, in particular cellulase, are then reguired to break down these fibrous parts. In addition, many antacids contain excessive amounts of sodium, aluminium, calcium and magnesium and with prolonged use, dangerous mineral imbalances can occur. Excess sodium can aggravate hypertension and excess aluminium has been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.

Foods to avoid

People tend to pop millions of little pills for indigestion and yet recent research suggests that a simple diet change could mean relief for many. Foods that aggravate acid reflux and should be avoided are fatty or fried foods, peppermint and spearmint, whole milk, sugar, chocolate (worse than sugar in this case), creamed foods or soups and most fast foods. Foods that irritate an inflamed lower oesophagus and may need to be limited or avoided are citrus fruits and juices, tomato and tomato-based foods, spicy foods, coffee (regular and decaffeinated), caffeinated and carbonated soft drinks and tea.

Safe home remedies

At the first sign of heartburn drink a large glass of water. For some this may be all that is needed. Another remedy reported to be successful involves taking a probiotic supplement and supplemental enzymes. (American Journal of Gastroenterology 2005;100:560-567; Medscape Gastroenterology 2005;7(1)). Enzymes taken with each meal and at bedtime will aid the body’s own enzyme supply enabling better digestion of food.  A probiotic will increase the friendly bacteria population in the stomach but should not be taken at the same time as the enzymes.
Try a glass of fresh cabbage or celery juice daily. Fennel, chamomile or ginger teas aid in proper digestion and act as a buffer to stop heartburn. Eat papaya with your meals and 50% of your vegetables raw - heat kills enzymes.

Other recommendations

  • Stop using tobacco in all forms. Nicotine weakens the lower oesophageal muscle.
  • Don’t eat for 3 hours before bedtime
  • Avoid clothing that fits tightly round the waist
  • Don’t bend over after eating
  • Don’t drink liquids with meals
  • Eat small, frequent portions of food, eat slowly and chew well
  • If overweight, lose weight. Obesity leads to increased reflux
  • Use a natural fibre supplement such as psyllium husks
  • Elevate the head of the bed six to eight inches to prevent reflux when sleeping.


You need to alkalinize your system but NOT with antacids. The dried juice of barley grass as in AIM’s Barley Life, is excellent for this. The juice of quarter of a lemon (Yes I know it’s a citrus fruit) in boiling water first thing in the morning also alkalinizes the system. Foods that make your system more acidic are meat, dairy and refined foods such as those made with white flour, so limit these.


The early symptoms of angina and heart attack sometimes mimic those of heartburn. If symptoms persist, if the pain begins to travel down into your left arm or if the sensation is accompanied by a feeling of weakness, dizziness or shortness of breath, seek emergency medical help.

Disclaimer: All information here is for educational purposes only and is not meant to cure, heal, diagnose nor treat. This information must not be used as a replacement for medical advice, nor can the writer take any responsibility for anyone using the information instead of consulting a healthcare professional.  All serious disease needs a physician.

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