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Acid Reflux Disease (GERD): Causes, Treatment and Prevention

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It's no secret that acid reflux is a widespread condition. Just think of all the antacid, Nexium or Prilosec advertisements you've seen lately. Some people eat Tums, an alkalinizing form of calcium, like candy.

But you don't have to resort to taking expensive prescription drugs or chewing bushels of antacids. If any condition is made to be treated by herbal therapy, it is acid reflux (or GERD, or heartburn).

What causes acid reflux? Among common causes are the following:

  • an imbalanced diet, too high in irritating, hot, spicy and acidic foods (not including vinegar or lemons, however)
  • stress and worry
  • eating too fast
  • not chewing well enough (chewing allows your saliva to predigest the food before it even reaches your stomach)
  • erratic eating habits
  • not enough water (especially after a meal)
  • insufficient stomach acid

The most prevalent reason by far is insufficient stomach acid. When we don't have enough digestive secretions in our stomach, food is allowed to stay in the gut too long with resultant fermentation and gas. This is one reason that just about every culture in the world has its own bitters recipe. For example, I often recommend the Italian liqueur called Fernet-Branca to patients as a digestive bitters. A tablespoon before and/or after meals stimulates the secretion of saliva, bile and stomach acid, which in turn aids digestion. Ayurvedic medicine has a traditional wine called Draksha used for a similar purpose.

The old standby of a teaspoon each of pure, undistilled apple cider vinegar and raw honey stirred together in a small glass of warm water is a very effective treatment for about 85% of the cases of GERD.

In Ayurveda, a primary formula to aid digestion is called Avipattikar Churna. It consists of trikatu herbs (black and long pepper and ginger), cyperus, cardamom, cinnamon leaf, clovers trivit (Operculina turpethum), vidanga (Embelia ribes) and raw sugar. It is specific for hyperacidity, heartburn, biliousness, vomiting, indigestion, dropsy, rheumatism -- in other words, for any pitta (fire) type disorder. One to four grams or two to eight tablets are taken two or three times daily, after meals with warm water. This remedy is commonly available from Ayurvedic supply companies such as Bombay Bazaar of India in Berkeley or Banyan Botanicals.

Planetary Herbals has two products that can be used to aid digestion: Digestive Comfort Tablets and Digestive Grape Bitters.

If you have money to burn, you can try the pharmaceutical alternatives to the above simple remedies listed above. You may already know that pharmaceutical companies get to have an exclusive right to the sales of the products they produce for a period of seven years. When this term expires, other companies can manufacture similar products as 'generics' at a greatly reduced cost. The heartburn drug Prilosec is one of the best-selling prescription medicines in history. Sales in the past five years alone amount to $26 billion. The reason is not only its popularity but its steep price: about $4 per pill.

As it so happens, the patent for Prilosec expired April of 2001. Still there is no inexpensive generic on the market to take its place. This is because in 1995, a team of lawmakers and scientists, aptly called (I kid you not) 'Shark Fin,' seeing the end of its Prilosec cash cow coming, began a list of nearly 50 possible solutions to the patent-expiration disaster facing the company.

One list item was to find a new heartburn remedy that would work better. No, it's not apple cider vinegar and honey, nor Digestive Comfort, nor a digestive bitters and not even Avipattikar Churna. It is the successor to Prilosec known as Nexium, and like its predecessor was originally sold for $4 a pill, but you can find it available at varying discount market prices averaging around $1 a pill. Now the successor to Prilosec and Nexium is called Prevacid and it is sold for, you guessed it: $4 a pill.

The fact is all of these products produce pretty much the same results. None of them are curative in any way; in fact, by suppressing digestive acids, it's a question as to whether they will ever treat the underlying cause of the disease.

The problem is that an otherwise simple-to-treat condition like acid reflux is often mismanaged or allowed to linger so long as to cause physical damage that takes a lot longer to repair.

Those with an advanced case of GERD may find pharmaceutical products necessary (but shop around for generics and check off-shore sales on the internet). If your esophagus is not badly eroded, it is possible to eventually heal your condition. For some, the questionable choice of laparoscopic anti-reflux surgery is an option. Ironically, assuming all goes well with the surgery, for the rest of your life you will have to eat very slowly and smaller than usual amounts -- something that should have been done before GERD ever became a degenerative, chronic condition.

How do you know you have bad digestion even before you experience heartburn? Bloating, swollen abdomen after meals, and sometimes a lot of gas. Charcoal tablets are the most immediate remedy to stop farting and gas but they are not a true fix. If these problems are allowed to persist, you may eventually end up having to treat the more serious condition of GERD.

The moral of this blog is: If you have digestive problems of any sort, don't wait until they cause damage that is impossible to reverse. Give the natural remedies suggested here a try or visit your local herbalist.

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