Heartburn is that uncomfortable burning sensation that occurs just behind your chest (sternum). It is often worse after eating, when lying down or bending over. Occasional bouts of heartburn are common and are often triggered by certain foods, however if you are experiencing this more than twice a week it can be a result of a chronic digestive disorder called GERD Gastroesophageal reflux Disease. While there is no single clear cause of GERD, it is often related to the functioning of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) , the ring of muscle that separates the esophagus from the stomach.
Heartburn occurs when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus, the tube that takes food from your mouth to your stomach.
It is estimated that on average, five million Canadians experience heartburn and/or acid regurgitation at least once a week.
Chinese medicine has a history of over 3,000 years, and is incredibly valuable when it comes to helping improve gastrointestinal issues. Chinese medicine not only offers symptomatic relief but we also treat the underlying root cause. Nothing in the body works in isolation and heartburn is often viewed as a dysfunction of the Liver, Spleen and Stomach system.
Dietary irregularities and emotional swings (long term worry, frustration and anger) weaken the Liver’s ability to spread Qi (body’s organizational energy) smoothly in our body. This can impact our Spleen and Pancreas’ function of absorbing nutrients and in turn damages the Stomach’s function of moving contents downward in the direction it is intended. This backflow of stomach acid is a result of Qi rising inappropriately and causing that uncomfortable and tight feeling in the chest.
Dietary habits and lifestyle can be a big part of the problem. As an acupuncturist, we look at each person as an individual and work together to create a treatment plan that might include sustainable lifestyle changes to help resolve your heartburn and digestive issues.
When there is an excess of stomach ‘fire’ (too much yang/heat flowing into the stomach) we may feel constipated, have excessive thirst, feel hungry and when we add more ‘fiery’ foods like spicy meals, alcohol…it increases this fire and worsens our symptoms. If we don’t take the time to eat slowly and savour our foods, then we burn through the Yin nourishing qualities in our bodies. This can make us feel hot and irritable, and give us an intense feeling of heartburn in the chest. We may also experience nausea, regurgitation and bad breath. The yang ‘fire’ is not being tempered in the body and it flows upwards. In this case you might want to consider eating more green, cooling and moistening foods like cucumbers, celery, leafy green vegetables and lettuces.
Eventually this fire becomes drying and consumes our yin fluids and our heartburn becomes more chronic in nature. We may experience a dry mouth and throat, constipation, thirst with no desire to drink, lack of appetite and epigastric pain.
Another possible pattern is if we consume a lot of carbs and/or high fat greasy foods, carbonated drinks, they tend to stay in the stomach longer and gather fluids and create dampness. This dampness blocks the stomach’s job of descending the food, creating a feeling of fullness and reversal of the food upwards instead.
When it comes to our cravings and the foods we eat, rather than feel guilty about the choices we are making, what if instead we become curious as to why we are craving these particular foods? Guilt, deprivation and restriction often creates more internal tension. Inviting a sense of curiosity will give us more information about the needs and longings of our bodies.
Can we have too little stomach acid?
Often when we experience that uncomfortable burning sensation, we may reach for an antacid medication which helps to lower our stomach acid. What if your heartburn is a result of too little stomach acid, also known as hypochlorhydria? This is more common than we think. If we don’t have enough stomach acid to break down our food this can also cause digestive upset and carries gas bubbles that rise into our esophagus and throat and creates that uncomfortable feeling. This would be what in chinese medicine we consider a deficiency type of heartburn. An easy way to test whether you are lacking in stomach acid is with apple cider vinegar (acv). Try adding 1 tbs of acv to a small glass of water, before your meals and notice if this helps. Acv mimics the acid in your stomach and supports the chemical breakdown of your food.
Other useful tips:
If stress and/or anger is exacerbating your symptoms, find fun and meaningful ways to address your stress. Yoga, meditation, moderate exercise, and even rest can be extremely helpful.
Eating large meals late at night and lying down with a full stomach can not only cause indigestion but can trigger that uncomfortable burning sensation in the chest as you no longer have gravity on your side to keep the contents of your food moving in the direction it’s intended.
Chinese medicine has effectively dealt with heartburn for thousands of years, and now there is growing research on the efficacy of acupuncture and the digestive system including the following conclusion from Medical News Today on how acupuncture may help GERD
‘The underlying mechanisms of acupuncture involve the neuromodulation, adjustment of gastrointestinal motility and visceral hypersensitivity, anti-inflammation, repairment of gut microbiota, and intestinal barrier’.
Health and wellness are a balancing act between the Yin and Yang aspects of our body, nutrition and lifestyle. If you are experiencing heartburn, give acupuncture a try!
By: Cathy Keenan R.Ac