If you suffer from acid reflux, you’re not alone. An estimated 50 million Americans struggle with this condition, and about half of those people report having symptoms on a daily basis. Acid reflux is also known as heartburn, gastro esophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
Many people believe that their acid reflux is the result of having too much stomach acid, which is actually not the case. The culprit is the loosening of a ring of muscle at the base of your esophagus, called the lower esophageal sphincter. A healthy esophageal muscle keeps food and stomach acid where they belong—in your stomach. However, when the sphincter becomes lax, stomach acid and sometimes undigested food seeps upward into your esophagus, causing discomfort, a burning sensation, pressure in your chest, regurgitation, and a lump in your throat.
Acid reflux is more than just uncomfortable symptoms. Chronic exposure to stomach acid changes the tissue of your lower esophagus, a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus. About ten percent of people with GERD, or acid reflux, develop Barrett’s Esophagus, which is associated with an increased risk for esophageal cancer.
Typical Western medical treatments depend on the frequency and severity of your symptoms. For infrequent bouts of reflux, over the counter antacids may be enough to keep your symptoms under control. If your symptoms occur more often than occasionally, your doctor may prescribe an H2 blocker, which decreases the amount of acid that your stomach makes. If your symptoms are severe or occur daily, you may be prescribed a medication called a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), which blocks stomach acid where it’s produced by the cells in the lining of your stomach.
The downside of blocking stomach acid is that it affects your digestion. PPI’s slow the emptying of food out of your stomach. In addition, stomach acid acts as a natural barrier to harmful bacteria, so when the production of acid is suppressed, bacteria may proliferate, raising your risk of developing pneumonia and an intestinal infection called c. difficile. Scientists have also discovered that long-term use of PPIs may be tied to thinning bones, a condition called osteoporosis.
For people with acid reflux or GERD, acupuncture and Chinese medicine can offer a drug-free way to treat this condition. Researchers studying the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating acid reflux found that subjects who were treated with acupuncture reported a significant reduction in symptoms; a reduction similar or better than subjects who were treated with medications.
In Chinese medicine, there are a number of underlying causes of GERD or acid reflux. For example, chronic stress, slow stomach emptying, improper diet, or something called Stomach Heat (similar to inflammation) may be at the source of your symptoms. In order to best treat you, your practitioner must first determine the cause of your imbalance, and then develop a treatment plan best suited to your specific needs.
A first line of treatment usually includes acupuncture to support your digestion, decrease inflammation, and help to relieve your stress. Your practitioner may also prescribe an herbal formula to support and extend your acupuncture treatments at home. Furthermore, your practitioner would likely include Chinese food therapy into your treatment plan, in which the best foods for your overall health and digestion would be recommended, along with guidelines for foods to avoid. Simply put, if you suffer from acid reflux or GERD, acupuncture and Chinese medicine have a number of healing tools to help you become symptom free.