Q & A: Herbs for Heartburn and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

| January/February 2005

My husband has acid reflux disease. He was on Prilosec for too long, and his enzyme levels became so high that he started to have liver failure, so they switched him to Nexium, and he’s doing much better. However, if he misses a pill, he’s miserable. Plus, these pills are very expensive. Are there any natural herbs or health ideas you can recommend to relieve or prevent his misery of acid reflux disease?
—K.C., Walton, Kentucky 

Keville responds: Acid reflux disease, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is better known to most people as heartburn. Those who suffer from it often turn to antacid drugs, which are designed to decrease the amount of acid in the stomach. This inhibits pepsin and the ability to digest protein, and promotes food allergies. The more alkaline environment created by the decreased stomach acid also encourages growth of Helicobacter pylori, the bacterial culprit thought to be responsible for causing stomach ulcers. Holistic practitioners argue that heartburn is just as likely caused by too little acid in the stomach as too much. If that is determined to be the case, practitioners tend to see excellent results with herbal bitters, such as gentian (Gentiana lutea).

Helpful herbs for acid reflux include marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) and slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra), which help absorb stomach acid. With these, your husband also can take herbs to decrease the acid: chamomile, licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and meadowsweet leaf (Filipendula ulmaria). All of these herbs are soothing to the lining of the stomach. They can be safely taken with drugs like Nexium, if he still needs to take the drug.

A dietary approach would include carrots, apples and lemon juice, which contain vegetable acids that neutralize stomach acid. Along with chamomile, catnip (Nepeta cataria) is good because it relaxes the digestive system, reducing spasms that cause reflux. All of these herbs taste good, so they can be blended into a nice tea (or you can buy a premade tea at a health-food store). The herbs also can be taken as capsules or in a nonalcoholic herbal extract.

Your husband should avoid drinking alcohol and coffee, and smoking cigarettes — they will contribute to the problem. Eating chocolate or fatty, especially fried, foods makes acid reflux worse for many people. So can drinking carbonated beverages. Overeating can be another cause of the problem. A simple suggestion his doctor may have already mentioned is to raise the head of the bed a few inches, so his head is slightly elevated at night.

I’m actually more concerned about the liver failure that resulted from taking the drug. Milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum) and turmeric root (Curcuma longa) are examples of herbs that help rebuild the liver. Herbs that enhance liver-enzyme production and regulate liver function are burdock root (Arctium lappa), fringe-tree bark (Chionanthus virginicus) and bupleurum root. Or, check your local natural food store for a remedy designed for the liver, and, as with all my herbal suggestions, follow the directions on the package.

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