It’s a familiar situation: you’ve been dashing round all day grabbing food on the go when suddenly, heartburn starts. Ouch.
Heartburn (also called acid reflux) is caused by stomach acid escaping up into the oesophagus (the tube that runs from your throat to your stomach). Normally, a ring of muscle called the Lower Oesophageal Sphincter (LOS) tightens up to keep food and acid safely in the stomach. However, certain factors can affect this ring of muscle, stopping it from closing properly and allowing some acid back up into the tube.
The oesophagus isn’t equipped to deal with this acid and it goes into spasms. Sometimes the spasms and pain are so bad they are mistaken for a heart attack. Other symptoms include a sour taste in the mouth, a sickly burning sensation at the back of the throat, bloating, nausea, and a sudden increase in saliva.
Having an occasional bout of reflux ( eg once every few months) isn’t too concerning as the trigger is usually easy to identify and resolve. Eating a large celebratory meal with a few drinks for example, or indulging in some unusual foods on holiday. But if you’re experiencing reflux more than twice a week, it’s possible you could have GORD – GastroOesophageal Reflux Disease.
What causes heartburn & reflux?
Several factors make heartburn and reflux more likely to occur. Pregnancy, for example, and being overweight. Both these conditions increase pressure on the LOS, making it easier for small amounts of acid to escape back into the oesophagus.
Caffeine, chocolate, mint, peppermint, and alcohol can reduce the tone of the LOS, preventing it from closing properly. That’s all kinds of alcohol by the way. I’ve often been asked if there’s a special type of wine or particular beer that doesn’t relax the LOS, but sorry, the answer is no! Other foods can worsen the irritation caused by reflux: this group includes spicy foods and citrus fruits, which is why curries and orange juice are often a problem.
An important thing to note here is that none of these factors causes excessive amounts of stomach acid to be produced. It’s rare to have too much stomach acid. In fact, most people with reflux and heartburn have too little, and that’s another part of the problem…
Stress & Digestion
Aside from foods, the biggest single trigger for heartburn and reflux is stress.
Stress disrupts your entire digestive process from start to finish. Imagine your digestion is like a factory production line. Each part of the line can only do its job if the part before it is working properly. So, if the very first part of digestion isn’t up to scratch, the stomach will suffer.
The very first part of digestion isn’t chewing or swallowing food, it’s SEEING and SMELLING the food. Even HEARING it being cooked (sizzling pancakes anyone?). This stage is called the Cephalic stage after the Greek word ‘kephos’ meaning head. It’s all about the senses of smell, sight, and sound.
When we use these senses, we trigger nerve impulses that go down the vagus nerve into the digestive system. These impulses tell the stomach to get ready for the arrival of food, to get busy producing gastric juices! If we skip this stage as is the case when eating on the go, food arrives in the stomach with no warning and the stomach struggles to deal with it.
Eating on the go usually goes hand-in-hand with feeling busy and stressed. The problem is, our fight-or-flight stress response runs in direct opposition to our rest-digest-heal response. We cannot do both things at the same time: we cannot digest food comfortably whilst being stressed.
This is what happens;
How to manage heartburn & reflux mindfully and naturally
Now you know what might be causing the problem, let’s look at simple ways to deal with it.
1. Make time for eating
As we’ve just discussed, eating on the go is a big trigger for heartburn and reflux so the most important step is to make time to eat. This can be 10 minutes, so long as that’s 10 minutes with no phone, emails, or TV. Just you and your food.
2. Take 3 slow deep breaths before eating
Deep breathing instantly down regulates the stress response and switches your nervous system into rest-and-digest mode. Look at your food whilst taking these deep slow breaths, enjoy the smell and sight of your meal. Engage these important cephalic senses!
It’s amazing how many people simply hoover up food. Like some kind of alien with a suction tube rather than a human with a mouthful of teeth.
Chewing stimulates even more of those important nerve signals, and also helps us to know when we’re full. If you think you’re over-eating, try chewing more to reignite your satiety signals.
4. Avoid foods that relax the LOS
Alcohol, mint, peppermint, caffeine and chocolate. I know there’s a lot of ‘treat’ foods in there, but think about how much better you will feel.
5. Enjoy a small bowl of bitter salad leaves before your main meal
Bitter foods like rocket, watercress, mustard leaves, dandelion leaves, mizuna, apple cider vinegar and lemon juice stimulate the gastric juices. Use the lemon juice and apple cider vinegar in a simple dressing with olive oil and black pepper for a delicious green salad starter.
*Please do not do this if you already have an active stomach ulcer or gastritis or are taking H2 blockers or PPI medications*
6. Eat larger meals earlier in the day
The speed at which your stomach empties is partly controlled by diurnal rhythms. It empties slightly faster in the morning than in the evening. You’re also more likely to be upright and moving round during the day: lying down after an evening meal makes it easier for acid to flow back up into the oesophagus.
Experiment with having a smaller evening meal, and eat more at breakfast and lunch instead to see if this eases your symptoms.
7. Enjoy an overnight fast
Fasting is the only way for your digestive system to have a rest and do some ‘housekeeping’. Does that sound weird? Well, the billions of bacteria in your gut have a lot of maintenance work to do, keeping your gut lining healthy. The easiest way to give them chance to do this, and for your stomach to have a rest, is to fast overnight for 12 hours. So, if you finish your evening meal at 7.30pm, don’t eat again until 7.30am the following morning. Herbal teas and water are okay, just no food.