Stomach key to overall health

March 14, 2014 09:05 am

Stomach health may seem kind of boring. The stomach doesn’t do much, you may think. 

Well, check this out: the stomach makes acids and enzymes to break down foods. The acid is as strong as battery acid and would burn a hole through your hand. A healthy stomach’s high acid level also serves to disinfect your food and triggers subsequent digestive function in your small intestines. Inadequate stomach acid levels put all these crucial activities at risk. 

Why doesn’t this battery acid burn through your stomach, you may ask. The healthy stomach has a protective lining that resists erosion, unlike nearby tissues in the esophagus or duodenum. Too often, an unhealthy lining or acid in the wrong place causes damage. The damage erodes and destroys the lining and may cause what we call, by various names, heartburn, acid reflux, GERD or stomach ulcer.

Factors that cause damage to the healthy protective lining or allows acid up your throat are the usual causes of problems, not too much acid. Ironically, insufficient stomach acid may lead to heartburn, reflux, GERD and Barrett’s esophagus. Often low acid levels cause problems because foods don’t break down, but just sit there creating pressure. Likewise, anything that increases pressure on your stomach may cause acid reflux. Large meals, tight clothing, lying down after a meal and pregnancy all strain the system.

Heartburn or GERD is our most common digestive disorder. More than 157 million prescriptions for proton pump inhibitors, like Nexium, Prilosec and Prevacid, were written in 2012 alone. PPI’s other drugs and even antacids have similar effects and are used to block stomach acid production. 

No acid, no pain, no problem, right?

The Food and Drug Administration devotes a Web page to the adverse effects of PPI’s. You can now guess what they might be, knowing that stomach acid breaks down and disinfects food. PPI’s can increase risk of clostridium infection and poor nutrient absorption leading to fractures, seizures and dementia. Much can go wrong if your body doesn’t get what it needs to work well. PPI’s usually cause B12 deficiencies which may result in irreversible neurologic problems. This is why the FDA recommends only temporary use — three two-week sessions a year maximum. 

Treating the symptoms of GERD with acid blocking drugs has a place, but is very overused in my opinion. Finding and removing the cause and helping your body heal is ultimately more effective. A good place to start is your eating habits.

Important questions include what you eat, how much you eat, are you relaxed when you eat and do you chew food well? Your body has two fundamental ways of functioning, each important to a healthy and full life. The “go-do-think” action mode sends blood to our muscles and brain and shuts down the digestive system. Many of us are too familiar with this mode, often driven by stress, worry and lack of time. 

The “rest-repair-restore” mode is needed to keep going and maintain balanced health. What do you imagine might happen to your digestion system if you habitually inhale your meal?

Dr. John Winters is a naturopathic doctor and owns Winters Naturopathic Clinic in La Grande.