A patient rang me this week to see if there was anything I could do about acid reflux. ‘I’ve always had it,’ she told me, ‘But it’s got worse recently.’
Giving up various foods didn’t seem to make much difference, and nor did eating smaller meals.
You shouldn’t be aware that you’re carrying around a bag of hydrochloric acid. Most of the time, it does its job of breaking down the food you eat so that the enzymes in your gut can get to work on it, and you’ll be none the wiser. But if you suffer from acid reflux, you’ll certainly have known about it. Burning pains, nausea, a chronic cough, and so on. And if you went to the doctor, you’ll probably have a prescription for omeprazole, ranitidine or something like them.
If you didn’t get that far, you’ll have little stashes of Rennies wherever you might need them.
Rennies simply neutralise the acid, so you get quick relief. Omeprazole, ranitidine and their relatives reduce the amount of acid you produce. Neither of these routes gets to the cause of overproduction. Medically, the two most likely immediate causes are: taking aspirin, ibuprofen and the like, which irritate your stomach lining; and ‘infection’ with Helicobacter pylori, which is generally treated with antibiotics.
But those are just immediate causes, and most of the people I see have suffered from ‘heartburn’ for years, and never really taken it seriously. If you can make it go away with a pill, you can forget about it and get on with your life. But we do know that when you are anxious, you make more acid. When you’re hungry, you start to produce more, as you might expect.
So if you ignore the first signals of hunger because you’re trying to finish a piece of work, as my patient has done for her entire adult life, you get a deeply embedded pattern, and eventually your stomach, or your oesophagus in her case, will start to complain.
Amazing, really, that we can get away with it for so long! And of course, you can use herbs symptomatically, just like Rennies. Drink chamomile or meadowsweet tea, and it will help. But you may be setting yourself up for trouble further down the line. The odds are that the symptoms of irritable bowel will crop up, too. The adrenalin release that you get when you allow your blood sugar to fall too low lets you keep going for longer, but if you keep ignoring hunger signals year in, year out, your adrenal glands get tired.