male model with hole showing stomach underneath the skin with text bubble saying acid reflux isn't from too much stomach acid

Many patients suffering from GERD or acid reflux are on acid blocking medications. When I tell them their symptoms aren’t necessarily due to overproduction of acid, they look surprised. Acid blockers help with the symptoms, but in most cases, it doesn’t address the underlying issue; in all cases, they must not be used long term. This article will shed some light on the most common causes of GERD or acid reflux.

What Is Acid Reflux?

Acid Reflux is a phenomenon whereby acid (and sometimes other substances) come upwards, from the stomach back into the esophagus/throat.

The long-term consequences of acid in the esophagus is quite serious and acid blockers are often prescribed accordingly. However, acid blockers are not meant for long term use, there’s evidence they can cause other gut issues.

Furthermore, there’s good evidence that acid reflux is usually not from over production of stomach acid [1], [2].

The Usual Culprit: Lower Esophageal Sphincter Dysfunction

One of the most common causes of Acid Reflux or GERD is lower esophageal sphincter (LES) weakening [1] or failure to close altogether [2].

male anatomical model with esophagus and stomach with label for the lower esophageal sphincter showing how it relates to GERD

The Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES) is what separates the esophagus from the stomach. When it’s open it lets food go into the stomach; when it’s closed, it keeps things that should be in the stomach out of the esophagus. At rest, the sphincter tends to be open. Swallowing will stimulate the nervous system to hold the sphincter closed.

A number of factors are associated with a weak lower esophageal sphincter, including:

  • Pressure gradients – if pressure through the sphincter is weaker than abdominal or gastric pressure – it will open
  • Dietary Fat intake
  • Eating (due to effects of hormones secretin and cholecystokinin)
  • Chocolate
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Smoking
  • Colonic fermentation (we don’t know why or how)
  • Pregnancy (progesterone)
  • Medications: Anticholinergic drugs, Nitrates, Calcium channel blockers, Prostaglandins (pain medications)

We often experience Transient Relaxation of the LES. This means the weakness doesn’t persist, it's only there for 5-30 seconds [3], which explains why some diagnostic imaging may miss LES dysfunction.

Sometimes Acid Reflux is Due to Too Much Acid, but these are Special Circumstances

There are a few conditions which result in over production of stomach acid. These conditions are relatively uncommon; most people taking acid suppression medications do not have these conditions.

Gastrin Releasing Tumors

A particular type of tumor called gastrinomas have potential for excessive acid production. They are quite uncommon - only 3% of the population has these [4]. A condition called Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome is the most common type, representing 30% [1] of that tiny 3%.

After Prolonged Use of Acid Blockers

When we have low stomach acid, our stomachs will make more gastrin, which is a signal to make more acid. The gastrin will get to its highest point (15% higher than it is supposed to be) around the 4th month of treatment [1]. Once a person stops the acid blocker, they experience a transient over secretion of acid early on. Luckily, this tends to only last for about 7 days [1].

H. Pylori

Infection with H. Pylori initially causes damage to the acid producing cells (causing decreased acid production) which in turn creates more gastrin. Upon irradiation of the bacteria, hypergastrinemia may result in over secretion of acid [1].

Summary

Although acid reflux is often treated with acid blocking medications, it's usually not from over production of acid. The most common cause of acid reflux is lower esophageal sphincter dysfunction. Treatment with antacids is appropriate to block the symptoms but addressing the underlying issues should be the top priority. Book in with our naturopath to discuss how we may work towards ideal gut function!

References

Interested in learning more?

Read on in our series of articles on Gut Health!

About the Author - Dr. Johann de Chickera

Dr. Johann de Chickera is a naturopath at Absolute Health and Wellness in Paris Ontario

Dr. Johann is a licensed naturopathic doctor and co-owner of Absolute Health and Wellness. He completed his 4-year degree at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM). His clinical focus lies in chronic disease, such as those related to the Gastrointestinal, Endocrine, and Immune Systems.

His approach to medicine relies on working with the patient to come up with a feasible, multi-factorial approach that addresses all complaints at once. He employs a strong background in diagnostic medicine and human physiology and pathology to diagnose and treat. His treatment involve a combination of nutritional counselling, botanical medicine, eastern medicine (acupuncture), nutraceutical supplementation and hands on physical medicine.

To book in please call us at (519) 442-2206 or click here.

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