In health care since 1977, but keenly aware of Western medicine's shortcomings, Rose Mary began exploring natural health in the late 1990s.
This article is about my personal experience with reflux and home remedies. Your experience could be different. I always say, if the same thing worked for everyone, we’d only need one of everything. I will cover some of the things that worked for me, as well as some of the conventional wisdom that did not.
I was officially diagnosed with reflux in November of 2003. This was after a period of 9 months during which I was consistently waking up 3-5 times per night with coughing, gagging and sputtering spells.
Arriving at my diagnosis was difficult because at the time I had seldom, if ever, had gastrointestinal symptoms. My symptoms presented more like sinus symptoms: primarily post nasal drip and coughing. These symptoms are actually more consistent with larygotracheal reflux (LTR) or extra esophageal reflux. WebMD has a good introduction about LTR, where you can read more.
I started out taking Prilosec, a proton pump inhibitor, and Zantac, an antacid, to treat my reflux—both of which were very effective. Two years later, however, I had a cascade of symptoms, diagnoses, and prescriptions. I wound up on 11 prescription and over-the-counter drugs, as well as 3 supplements for clinical deficiencies. I felt awful and barely had a life.
It's possible, of course, that some of my newer symptoms were actually side effects of some of the medications I was taking. By this time, I was having heartburn and other, more classic reflux symptoms—along with my usual cough and throat clearing.
In my desperation, I discovered alternative medicine and began eliminating prescription meds. I started taking a betaine hydrochloride supplement for my reflux, and I was able to eliminate Zantac entirely and cut my Prilosec dose by half.
For those of you thinking that betaine hydrochloride sounds like acid, or something that might make the stomach more acidic, you are correct. Most alternative medicine providers agree that reflux is caused not by too much stomach acid, but by too little.
I had weaned myself down to half of my original Prilosec dose, and I was taking the half-dose just 4 days a week. By taking these 4 Prilosec half-doses each week, along with daily betaine, I had good symptom control—but I could not seem to wean all the down to zero Prilosec. I could tolerate reflux symptoms during the day, but I could not tolerate the return of the nighttime cough, which interrupted my sleep.
Armed with my understanding of the alternative medical view of reflux, in addition to some information from a publication called The Bottom Line, I began to experiment with a few home remedies.
Tip # 1 - Decrease Water With Meals
My dad is a fan of The Bottom Line and has numerous books and reports around the house (as I do now, as well). I was home on leave, and I grabbed a couple of his books to occupy myself on a road trip, making notes in a little notebook.
The Bottom Line not only stated that the problem with reflux is too little stomach acid, but it also proposed that the older we get, the more diluted our stomach acid becomes, which means that it is not potent enough to adequately digest food. This is especially true for meat protein. For me, this would at least partially explains my deficits in iron and B12.
Then the bombshell. You know how experts have touted for years that we should drink a large glass of water before meals, in the hopes that we won’t eat as much? Guess what? By drinking all that water, we have just further diluted our stomach acid!
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The Bottom Line suggested minimizing fluid intake immediately before, after, and during meals. I was drinking a liter of water with meals as I took my fistful of supplements. I started spreading out my supplements over a period of 1-2 hours, taking a few at a time with sips of water.
Tip # 2 - Don’t Graze
The Bottom Line also cautions against grazing. The rationale is that eating constantly throughout the day taxes the ability of your stomach acid to do its job. Then, when you eat a full meal, you won’t have your full complement of necessary digestive acid. In general, I agree with this, but I recommend taking apple cider vinegar with meals when you’ve been guilty of grazing. Dilute 1/2 oz of vinegar with the mother with 1-1/2 to 2 oz of water and drink.
Tip # 3 - Avoid Trigger Foods
Most experts agree on a basic list of foods that are likely to trigger reflux, but they acknowledge that there is a high degree of variability between individuals. Here are some commonly cited trigger foods:
- Caffeinated beverages
- Spicy foods
- Garlic and onions
- Tomato-based foods like pizza and spaghetti
- Fried or fatty foods
- Milk and dairy
I definitely have to say coffee aggravates my reflux. For years I thought it was a good expectorant because of the throat clearing and coughing it triggered. Oh, well. I was not safe to drive without my coffee when I was working. Now that I’ve retired from the Air Force, I have vowed to avoid any activities that require me to rise at 6 a.m. on a regular basis. I have been “off the coffee” since my retirement.
I’m not sure about alcohol in general, but from the minute I found out I had reflux, it ruined red wine for me. I used to love it; now I can hardly even say it. Red wine and reflux clearly don’t go together in my mind. When I occasionally have red wine, I drink at least twice as much water along the way as I do wine. I have given up alcohol in general. I occasionally have an ounce or two of white wine, but most of the time, I think about the possible reflux symptoms, and it's just not worth it.
I’m not a milk drinker. I can say, though, that the occasional Dairy Queen Banana Split Blizzard, which has vanilla ice cream, strawberries, pineapple, banana, and chocolate syrup, always triggers my cough and the need to clear my throat. Yet I can have the same thing at Culver’s, made with chocolate custard, and have no symptoms. I can also eat chocolate ice cream, made with “natural and artificial flavors,” and I have no problems.
I only occasionally eat fried or fatty foods, and I rarely eat fast food. This has been the case for 20 or 30 years. Is it because the reflux trained me this way years ago? I now suspect I’ve had reflux all of my life. I’ve never had any tolerance for hot, spicy food. Again, I never liked it, but is that because of the reflux? I like citrus fruit, but I never crave it, and historically I have eaten it only sporadically.
I don’t have any problems with onions, garlic, or tomatoes, and in fact, I eat lots of these foods. I always liked Italian cuisine. Then, when I was stationed in Turkey, I began to eat Turkish food, which frequently incorporates these ingredients, as well.
Common reflux triggers
Tip # 4 - Avoid Food Combining
Donna Gates, of the Body Ecology Diet, cautions against food combining. She recommends not eating starch and meat protein in the same meal, because the digestive processes are so different. I had to concede that even junior high biology seems to support this. Starch digestion is through enzymes, starting with salivary enzymes, whereas meat is more dependent on stomach acids. This is an incredibly hard rule for me to follow, but I do think there is something to it. While I can digest spaghetti all right, pizza now gives me heartburn every single time. Sandwiches seem to be okay. I often find that I can mix meat and starch if I also consume substantial portions of vegetables. When I skip vegetables in a meal, I almost always have reflux symptoms.
Tip # 5 - Eat Cultured Vegetables
Donna Gates of the Body Ecology Diet also recommends cultured vegetables, as a daily part of a healthy diet. Fermented and cultured foods are chock-full of healthy bacteria. They assist in making the body more alkaline, which is a less hospitable environment for diseases, including cancer.
Most European and Asian cultures regularly incorporate such foods into the diet. I tried several commercially produced cultured vegetables, which I ordered online, but I found the texture not to my liking (read disgusting). The Immunitrition vegetables were the best, though sometimes the texture was softer than I like. I finally got brave, and my sister and I made our own. The texture is soooo much better. The best recipes are from Miranda Barrett’s The Food of Life: The Versatile Vegetable.
Donna recommends ¼ to ½ cup of cultured vegetables with every meal. I add a little Bragg’s apple cider vinegar and a healthy omega oil like flax, hemp or pumpkin seed oil, which boosts the health benefits as well as enhances the taste. I also add a little stevia sweetner. I kinda got out of the habit of eating these the last few months. At best, I was eating a ½ cup serving after my evening meal. I’m convinced eating cultured vegetables reduced my reflux symptoms.
Making Cultured Vegetables
Tip # 6 - Don’t Gain Weight or Wear Tight Clothes
Another common recommendation for clients with reflux is to avoid weight gain. As if any of us purposefully gain weight, especially if we’re already on the “fluffy” side! Before my reflux was diagnosed, recall that my sleep was interrupted for 9 months. This impairs metabolism, particularly carbohydrate metabolism, and I gained weight. This causes additional pressure on the stomach, with the abdominal organs pressing upward toward the diaphragm. This increases reflux symptoms.
Of course the weight gain also made my BDUs (military uniform) too tight. This creates a banding effect with the trousers, further aggravating symptoms.
Tip # 6 - Don’t Eat Before Bedtime
Experts typically recommend not going to bed for 2-3 hours after eating dinner. I would say at least 2-3 hours, since I usually have some kind of meat with dinner, and meat takes 4-5 hours to digest. So 4-5 hours would be even better, but 2-3 hours is okay. When I was still working full-time, I usually got home pretty late; therefore, I ate pretty late. When I went to bed less than 2 hours after eating, I had a lot more nasal secretions upon waking. This is consistent with laryngotracheal reflux. According to Dr. Kurt Barrett, an osteopathic clinician who works with GERD, the production of mucous is the body’s attempt at protection, to prevent acid from getting to the lungs while laying down to sleep.
Remedies for Symptom Relief
There are many remedies you can take for relief of reflux symptoms such as heartburn and indigestion. My experience is that nothing seems to work for me long-term, so I tend to rotate remedies.
Remedy # 1 - Apple Cider Vinegar
Many sources endorse taking anywhere from 1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (ACV) with meals to fortify your stomach acid and aid digestion. This is based on the premise that reflux is caused by deficient stomach acid. I started keeping ACV in my office. If I had heartburn or other reflux symptoms after eating, I would take a tablespoon of ACV. When I began taking ACV after meals, along with reducing my fluid intake around meals, I was finally able to get off the Prilosec completely!
Remedy # 2 - Aloe Vera
Aloe vera is often recommended for the treatment of reflux. You can find capsules, but the juice is better. There are numerous brands and varieties. The flavored ones aren’t bad, but plain is tolerable. There is one I don’t care for; I think it is the “inner fillet," and it has a lumpy texture that I do not like. For me personally, I don’t get immediate symptom relief from aloe vera. I think it’s better for long-term-use effects. I try to drink 2 oz at least once a day.
Remedy # 3 - Baking Soda
Baking soda is my “when all else fails” reflux treatment. I think it’s better to prevent the symptoms through natural strategies, but… When I have bad heartburn, especially at bedtime, I make myself a “GI cocktail” with ½ teaspoon of baking soda and 8 oz of water. Baking soda is a buffer, meaning it can adjust whether your stomach pH is too acidic or too alkaline. I have used this remedy for over 20 years. It works better for me than Alka Seltzer, Rolaids, or Tums. It also works for intestinal discomfort.
Remedy # 4 - Celery Seed
My naturopath recommends celery seed for reflux symptoms. I get Solaray celery seed, 505 mg, and I take two after meals, which is the dose my naturopath recommends when I have symptoms. Celery seed is convenient to carry in my bag, and it seems to help.
Remedy # 5 - Pulsatilla
My naturopath (also a homeopath and herbalist) also recommends pulsatilla. I get this homeopathic remedy from his office. It is a liquid, so it's not as convenient to carry with me as capsules, but I do tend to carry a small bottle of this in my purse. I use 9 drops after meals. Currently, this is one of my favored remedies.
Remedy # 6 - Carrot Juice
Carrot juice is my other favorite remedy right now. My chiropractor told me to try it, and it really does work for me. I drink two to four ounces after meals—especially my evening meal, or when I have eaten meat, or if I have mixed meat and starch in a single meal.
Remedy # 7 - Kangen Water
About a year ago, I bought a Kangen water ionizer. There are plenty of nay-sayers, but the Japanese use water ionizers in their hospitals. Ionizing causes the water molecules to form microclusters, which makes the water easier to absorb on a cellular level. Ionizing also gives water antioxidant properties, which helps neutralize free radicals and helps fight disease. Finally, with an ionizer, you can produce alkaline water. Drinking alkaline water makes your internal environment more alkaline and less acidic, which makes it a less inviting place for diseases, including cancer.
Kangen proponents report numerous and diverse health benefits, including resolution of reflux symptoms. My reflux was better, but I still had episodes that made me want to make a baking soda cocktail. After discussion with my naturopath, he asked me to try an "experiment" of using the acidic 6.0 pH water for my reflux symptoms. This seems to do the trick!