Spirited holiday cheer can leave us with sore cheeks from smiling, aching bellies from laughter, and can quite literally have us bent over from heartburn and acid reflux after a heavy meal.
I remember my uncle calmly stirring baking soda into a glass of tepid water one Christmas night, while he continued telling a raucous story and downing the glass in one gulp. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was fighting post-holiday meal heartburn with an old-fashioned remedy upon which modern antacids are based.
We hardly reach for the baking soda anymore, with antacids always on hand. In 1989, it was reported by medical journalist Jean Carper that 10 percent of Americans suffered from daily heartburn, and that 44 percent had heartburn once a month. Ten years later, 995,402 people were reportedly hospitalized with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and only seven years later, that number sprang to more than 3 million.
It’s SAD … or the Standard American Diet.
Our diets are not getting any less acidic, but are antacids the answer? In his timeless book and film by the same name, “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser declares that the way in which we, as Americans, ate had changed more drastically in the past 40 years (now 60) than over the last 40,000.
As he lays out the birth of the American fast-food industry, Schlosser walks us through post-World War II-era celebrations in the 1940s and ‘50s with the industrialization of food. Suddenly, prepared foods were always within reach. Not only had chicken turned into a finger food overnight, but magical foods like Cheez Whiz, Jell-O and marshmallows became prevalent, and were embraced by food trend-crazed Americans. Schlosser calls it the “Golden Age of Food Processing.”
What became the new norm for grocery consumers set the trend for the new norm in health: high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels and an epidemic of Type II diabetes, with millions on the prediabetic list, leading many of us to rely on prescription medications.
Long ago, antacids were available only by prescription, but with their widespread use in response to our newly adopted diet, they soon became over the counter. Interestingly enough, long-term use of antacids is said to have a profound effect on gut flora and acid balance … and not in a good way. This was once deemed something to regulate or oversee, but now, Rolaids in hand, we self-medicate and treat the symptoms rather than the root of the problem, which is very often our diet.
When we eat certain foods that relax the muscle at the bottom of our esophagus, it can reopen slightly, releasing stomach acid and partially digested food back into the esophagus. This creates heartburn or acid reflux. It can start innocently enough with a bout of indigestion once a month, typically as a result of a heavy or overly spiced meal, but the reversed stomach acid can damage our esophagus over time, leading to GERD. This not only spells trouble for our health, but it feels like a whole lotta trouble, too.
We need stomach acid (hydrochloric acid and other enzymes) to break down every morsel of food we eat and every drop of liquid we drink. If we don’t have a sufficient amount, what happens? Confusingly enough, low stomach acid can trigger symptoms that are very similar to those sponsored by an overage of acid: Post-meal bloat, indigestion, difficulty digesting meat, bowel issues, bad breath and heartburn are all symptoms of low stomach acid.
Sound familiar? How can the symptoms for too much or too little stomach acid be the same? What causes low stomach acid? Stress, for one thing … anyone have any of that? A poor diet, eating too quickly, high sugar intake, medications, over-use of antacids and food sensitivities are all other contributors.
Is it possible that we rely so much on the use of antacids that we drive down our own stores of stomach acid? If we don’t have enough hydrochloric acid, our food isn’t digested properly, which sets off those heartburn alarms. Our go-to diagnosis for that burning sensation is always that we are acidic, and the medical profession typically asserts the same cause, but what if we’re actually not acidic enough?
Thinking our acid level is too high can dig us into a long-term dependency on antacids. If our problem is actually that we have low acid in our stomachs, that compounds our issue, sponsoring our graduation to the next tier … GERD. With each tier, our remedies get more complex, graduating from antacids to proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers (both of which lower the stomach’s ability to make acid), even to surgery.
How do we know?
In addition to lab tests, including one where you swallow a capsule that measures and reports back about your stomach acid levels, there are many at-home tests that can help to decipher your tummy acid status. Since low stomach acid sponsors the same symptoms that the opposite affliction does, before grabbing for the antacids, perhaps perform an easy home test, using baking soda and the well- published guidelines online.
Acid versus alkaline
Foods are rated on a pH scale, measuring from zero to 14, with zero being the most acidic. Alkaline waters have become popular, but water is naturally neutral at a pH level of seven; at about one, stomach acid is anything but. Battery acid is slightly more acidic at a level of 0.7 to 0.8, which gives us an idea about the acidic environment behind our belt.
Whether your stomach acid is high or low, our typical diet is extremely acidic and got more so with the advent of all of our fast, processed and prepared foods. Eating a diet that consists of about 80 percent alkaline foods and 20 percent acidic foods will keep our bodies fairly alkaline. Some days will naturally be more acidic, but we can make up for it with more things on the alkaline side. There are many alkaline charts out there and some of the foods on the acidic side will shock you. Berries are acidic, though seem so soothing with their high level of nutrients and antioxidants. Citrus, which measures on the acidic side outside of our bodies, has an alkalizing effect upon ingestion.
Katharine A. Jameson, a certified nutrition counselor who grew up in Williamsville and Townshend, writes about food and health for Vermont News & Media. For more tricks, tips and hacks, find her on Instagram: @foodforthoughtwithkat