June 2020 - Heartburn, medications and the role of your stomach acid
I have found myself frustrated lately at an advert for an over-the-counter heartburn medication. The drug, known as a proton pump inhibitor, is available in chemists, prescribed regularly in GP surgeries and clearly targeted at people who have similar music taste to ours. We are not aging rockers yet, but, as teenagers in the 1980’s, we are no spring chickens either and our music app clearly thinks we are likely to suffer with heartburn.
My issue with the advert is that it encourages the dietary behaviour that leads to heartburn and therefore the need for the medication in the first place. Smart advertising? Probably. Appealing to people’s desire to have it all, live fast, work hard, play well and feel great in the bargain? Yes perhaps.
The problem is that, after a while, people don’t feel well on these medications. The ‘proton pumps’ that the medication ‘inhibits’ are in the stomach and are responsible for pumping out hydrochloric acid. The stomach is the only area of the body that is made to cope with an acidic environment. It has a thick, mucous layer that the acid does not penetrate and therefore we generally feel no discomfort. The discomfort – the heartburn – starts when the acid travels upwards into the tube connecting the mouth to the stomach (the oesophagus) which is not made to withstand acid. It burns – literally – feels uncomfortable in the moment and overtime, can lead to a degeneration in the health of the oesophageal tract.
So people take a proton pump inhibitor to cut off the production of hydrochloric acid. The question to ask is why do we have this acid in the first place? The human body is an incredible machine, so it seems unlikely that the acid is produced to be a nuisance and cause heartburn. The fact is that hydrochloric acid plays an early and essential role in digestion. It deals with unwanted microbes that might be present in the food you eat. This is important. Our digestive tract is one of the few places where outside meets inside and we need it to deal with any nasties that might arrive on our food. But there is more to it than that. It begins the process of protein digestion, snipping the long protein molecules up into smaller sections to allow for easier digestion further down; it assists with the absorption of Vitamin B12, zinc and iron; and the acidic mixture that gets sent onto the next stage of digestion is responsible for stimulating the production of digestive enzymes and bile that prepare foods for absorption and use around the body. Without sufficient digestive ‘fire’, there is a negative knock-on effect, compromising digestion – bloating and gas are common symptoms – and bringing about nutrient deficiencies, low energy and more.
The advert that I alluded to at the beginning of this post suggests that with one pill a day, you can ‘start your day with a coffee’, have a ‘quick bit of lunch on the go’ and relax in the evening ‘with a cheeky takeaway’. I am a Nutritional Therapist with a heavy dose of realism and I also enjoy a takeaway at the weekends. But the fact is that throwing coffee into an empty system first thing, rushing or working as you eat a mindless lunch (what was in that sandwich?) and then having a take away in front of the TV at the end of a stressful day is not conducive to healthy digestion and would give many people heartburn. There are ways to fix heartburn that do not involve over-the-counter medications and the knock-on effects on our health. If you are taking one, have a look at the leaflet that comes in the box – they are not meant to be taken it in the long term and yet I see people in my clinic room on a regular basis who have been taking these for years and years. They feel sore, tired and depressed and often don’t even think that their digestion may be at the root of their problems.
If the advert that frustrates me resonates with you, think twice before you pop those pills. You need your hydrochloric acid. It just needs to be kept in the right place to work its magic. With a few dietary and habit changes, you won’t need the pills. Getting your digestion working optimally may just turn around your overall health and feelings of wellbeing – as well as getting rid of heartburn.
(Speak to your doctor before stopping any prescription medications).
January 2020 Food Focus – Olive oil contributes towards pain reduction
We have all experienced pain of some sort in our lives. It is part of the human existence. For some however, and a growing number here in the UK, daily life is impacted by chronic pain, a constant ache in muscles and joints, with seemingly little or no relief. The NHS has strategies to help people in these situations – anti-inflammatory drugs, immune-system suppressants – which provide relief for some, but often not in the long term and not without side effects.
If you suffer with chronic pain, there are choices that you can make that have been shown scientifically to reduce inflammation. It is inflammation that drives pain, so focusing on getting certain foods into your day or week can have an impact on your pain levels. It won’t happen overnight but it will be have an effect so it is worth persevering. Here I focus on olive oil. An easy and delicious addition to your day.
So how does olive oil work to reduce pain?
Rich in phenolic compounds – one of the most abundant phytochemicals in the plant kingdom – olive oil has been well researched for its anti-inflammatory properties. In particular, a polyphenol in olive oil called oleocanthal, has been shown to have similar anti-inflammatory properties as ibuprofen. We are lucky that olive oil also happens to taste great. Many people these days use olive oil as their go-to cooking oil and this is fine – just don’t heat it at too high a temperature. But for the anti-inflammatory effects, you want to eat most of your olive oil raw – i.e. not heated but drizzled at the table. I remember when I was training in nutrition, and whilst on a ski holiday in Italy, I watched as two teenage boys sat down for a pizza and, before tucking in, liberally drizzled their dinner with olive oil. Light bulb moment! That is how to do it. And I've been doing it ever since – over everything. Don’t just use this for salads – who feels much like salad in January? – but over soups, casseroles, steamed broccoli and other veggies. Or over your pizza for that matter. Make this routine and aim for 2-3 tablespoons a day. It is worth splashing out on olive oil that you serve at the table. Chose a single estate oil, somewhere in the region of £10 gets you a decent bottle.