Natural Ways to Cure the Burn
by Linda Sechrist
Nearly everyone has some reflux, the upward backflow of the stomach’s contents into the esophagus connecting the stomach with the throat, or even up into the throat itself. When it occurs more than twice a week, reflux can progress from a minor irritation causing heartburn to gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. When the throat is most affected it’s called laryngopharyngeal reflux, or LPR. Untreated, LPR can damage the throat, airway, and lungs. If left untreated, GERD can damage the digestive system and cause precancerous Barrett’s esophagus or even esophageal cancer.
“In the United States, the prevalence of esophageal cancer has increased 850 percent since 1975, according to National Cancer Institute statistics.” says Dr. Jamie Koufman who has been studying acid reflux for three decades as part of her pioneering work as a laryngologist, specializing in treating voice disorders and diseases of the larynx. She is founding director of the Voice Institute of New York and the primary author of Dropping Acid: The Reflux Diet Cookbook & Cure.
Koufman prescribes combining science, medicine and culinary arts to treat the ailment that she mainly blames on the acidification of the American diet, along with increases in saturated fats, high-fructose corn syrup and agricultural pesticides.
Consider that almost all bottled or canned foods have an acidity level of 4 or lower on the pH scale—a key measurement in medicine, biology and nutrition, and significant in Koufman’s clinical research and conclusions from examining upwards of 250,000 patients. “Soft drinks are the major risk factor for reflux,” she notes.
A single statistic from American Beverage Association highlights the problem: In 2010, the average 12-to-29-year-old American consumed 160 gallons of acidified soft drinks, nearly a half-gallon a day. “Trends in the prevalence of reflux parallel soft drink consumption over time, especially in young people,” says Koufman.
She clarifies that the term “acid reflux” is misleading because the problem centers on the digestive enzyme pepsin, which is manufactured in the stomach to break down proteins into more easily digestible particles. It is activated by the acid in high-acid foods.
“If there is no protein around that needs digesting, pepsin can gnaw on the lining of your throat and esophagus,” explains Koufman, who as a professor of clinical otolaryngology at New York Medical College. She has seen many reflux cases misdiagnosed as something else. “It’s common for doctors to mistake reflux symptoms of hoarseness, postnasal drip, chronic throat clearing, trouble in swallowing or sore throat and cough, for asthma, sinusitis or allergies.” She adds that heartburn and indigestion are sometimes treated with over-the-counter antacids, which are ineffective for these.
Koufman helps her patients, including professional singers, to overcome acid reflux with a two-week detoxification program consisting of a low-acid, low-fat, pH-balanced diet. “For two weeks, avoid acidic foods (nothing below pH 4),” she advises. “Eat fish, poultry, tofu, melons, bananas, oatmeal, whole-grain breads and cereals, mushrooms and green vegetables. Refrain from fried food, chocolate and soft drinks. Basically, consume nothing out of a bottle or a can, except for water.” She remarks that while reflux is definitely curable by following a proper diet, although it can still take up to a year for a person to become totally symptom-free.
Dr. Andrew Weil agrees with Koufman’s recommendations and suggests developing an exercise and relaxation strategy, because stress and anxiety worsen reflux symptoms, as well as staying hydrated by drinking plenty of purified water. Increase fiber intake by eating more whole grains, vegetables and fruits. Keep a log to track foods and beverages that worsen symptoms, and avoid alcohol and stimulants like caffeinated beverages and tobacco that irritate the gastrointestinal tract.
Weil also suggests ingesting a slippery elm supplement according to label directions, which can help heal irritated digestive tract tissues, and chewing a tablet of deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) or taking a half-teaspoon of a DGL supplement powder before meals and at bedtime. Reduce doses after symptoms are under control.
“For most people, there is probably a middle road—having an occasional glass of orange juice or soda doesn’t cause reflux disease—but if that’s all you drink day in and day out, it’s likely to create a problem. For people with known reflux disease, a period of ‘acid/pepsin detox’ makes good sense,” concludes Koufman.
Linda Sechrist is a senior staff writer for Natural Awakenings. Visit her website ItsAllAboutWe.com for the recorded interview.