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Heartburn is no longer a painful annoyance for millions of Americans. For others, it’s more than an annoyance: It’s a potential killer.
Physicians at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, found during a three-year study that individuals who experience heartburn once a week or more are nearly eight times more likely to develop deadly adenocarcinoma, which starts in the lower esophagus.1
"Among persons with recurrent symptoms of reflux, as compared with persons without such symptoms, the odds ratios were 7.7 for esophageal adenocarcinoma and 2.0 for adenocarcinoma of the cardia," wrote the Swedish authors. "The more frequent, more severe and longer lasting the symptoms of reflux, the greater the risk."
"Antacid pills, medications, or surgery did not reduce the chances of contracting cancer. That’s because the treatment of gastric reflux is based on the misconception that heartburn sufferers make too much stomach acid, when the exact opposite is true," says digestive health expert Brenda Watson, CT (colon therapist), founder of Renew Life Health Clinics with headquarters in Tarpon Springs, FL.
"The medical system teaches that upper abdominal pain has an acid component — that’s partially true. Unfortunately in medicine, partial truth ends up being dogma," says Leonard Smith, MD, a general, gastrointestinal, and vascular surgeon affiliated with Renew Life Health Clinics.
There are a few basic premises under which Smith and Watson work:
• Most people over the age of 50 don’t make enough hydrochloric acid and don’t break down proteins in the stomach.
• Most people eat too fast and don’t relax over their food and thereby do not permit their bodies to go into parasympathetic mode, "couch potato" mode in Smith’s estimation, so the digestive process can proceed naturally.
• Most people do not chew adequately so the saliva begins the breakdown of carbohydrates thorough the release of the enzyme amylase. "The food should be liquid when it enters the stomach," says Smith.
• When food is eaten too quickly, the stomach becomes distended and the food is pushed against the top of the stomach, where it can force open the lower esophageal sphincter and wash into the esophagus, causing heartburn from the partially digested food and gastric acids, sometimes even reaching as high as the throat and windpipe, and occasionally causing aspiration pneumonia.
"Antacids will relieve the symptoms without [the patient] really understanding the underlying cause of the pain," says Watson.
"There’s a belief that it’s all controlled by taking antacids, and that’s true in the short term," says Smith. "But in the long term, the habitual use of antacids blocks the natural production of acid, which knocks out one of the functions of stomach acid, to sterilize food before it enters the intestinal tract. Then you get out-of-control growth of every kind of bacteria in the stomach, including yeast and Helicobacter pylori."
It doesn’t take long before the patient goes from "not enough acid to no acid," he says, and then the situation can become severe.
Hydrochloric acid is "nature’s most essential antibiotic," says Smith. "Imagine a patient with virtually no stomach acid production eating a salad and being entirely incapable of neutralizing the bacteria present on all raw vegetables."
Optimal stomach pH is 1.5 to 2.5, says Smith. A definitive diagnosis of low stomach acid can be obtained through the Heidelberg test in which a radio capsule is swallowed and a pH reading of the stomach acid is transmitted back while gastric challenges are presented. However, the equipment for this type of procedure is expensive, and Smith recommends a simpler — and far less expensive — method of determining if the patient’s problem is low acid.
"I ask people to take one capsule of a good quality digestive enzyme supplement, which contains plant enzymes and hydrochloric acid, with a meal and then report whether the symptoms were relieved, the same, or worse," says Smith.
"We keep doing this over several meals until the patient has a feeling of fullness in the stomach. It may take as many as five capsules. When they begin to feel a slight acid burn, we back off one capsule and this gives them the proper digestive capacity to handle their food," he explains.
A good digestive enzyme capsule should contain the vital enzymes lipase (to break down fat), protease (to break down protein), cellulase (to break down cellulose or fiber), and amylase (to break down starches), says naturopathic physician Humbart (Smoky) Santillo, ND, MH (master herbalist), Buffalo, NY-based author of Food Enzymes: The Missing Link to Radiant Health.2
Santillo, who notes that humans are the only animals that eat cooked food, is a staunch advocate of eating a large percentage of raw food to promote digestive health.
He divides enzymes into two groups: exogenous (found in raw food) and endogenous (produced within the human body). "The more one gets of exogenous enzymes, the less will have to be borrowed from other metabolic processes and supplied by the pancreas. The enzymes contained in raw food actually aid in the digestion of that same food when it is chewed," says Santillo.
The long-term effect of a diet composed mainly of cooked and processed foods is what Santillo calls "cellular enzyme exhaustion, which lays the foundation for a weak immune system and, ultimately, disease."
Water consumption is another major issue with gastric reflux, says Watson. "Most people are dehydrated, and they don’t have sufficient mucus lining the upper digestive tract."
She suggests drinking a room temperature glass of water 30 minutes before a meal to help with hydration. But she cautions against drinking with the meal to avoid diluting gastric acids.
"As doctors, we have to talk to our patients and take our time with them," says Smith. "There are some simple protocols that will relieve the problem."
Smith and Watson’s heartburn rescue plan is an ideal, and they concede, "Everybody won’t do all it takes, but the simple concept of not mixing protein and carbohydrates will improve acid effectiveness."
The simplest advice to patients? "Cut out the CCRAAPP," Smith advises. "CCRAAPP is cigarettes, coffee, refined sugar, aspirin, alcohol, pop, and processed foods," he explains.
1. Lagergren J, Bergstrom R, Lindgren A. Symptomatic gastroesophageal reflux as a risk factor for esophageal adenocarcinoma. N Engl J Med 1999; 340:825-831.
2. Santillo H. Food Enzymes: The Missing Link to Radiant Health. Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press; 1993.