The Real Cause of Heartburn


If you’re human, you’ve most likely experienced heartburn at some point. You know, that burning sensation in your chest after a large meal or eating too late at night, the one that’s making you double over in pain or not fall asleep? Yep, bingo!

So what’s a rational person to do when pain strikes? Trudge over to the kitchen cabinet of course, and throw back some Tums, Pepto Bismol, or Gaviscon. Phew, instant relief!

But here’s the problem with that scenario:

Instant relief from antacids is making the problem much worse in the long run.
(Especially if this is a frequent occurrence for you, and especially if you are using the ultimate antacid, a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) to block stomach acid).

How so? You see, we’ve been told that heartburn is caused by “too much acid”, but unfortunately it’s one of those myths like “saturated fat is bad” and “eating egg yolks raises cholesterol” that has stuck around for too long. It is now a well established fact that the acid content in our stomach declines as we age, so something doesn’t quite add up when the elderly are given prescriptions for antacids. How would an acid blocker help someone who barely has any stomach acid to begin with?

Here’s the reality: in most cases, the acid backsplash you experience in your stomach is not from too much acid, it is from too little.

Whaa—-? Hear me out! Let’s take a quick science lesson.

Stomach acid (also known as hydrochloric acid) is secreted by parietal cells in our stomach. The role of stomach acid is to sterilize baddies (like parasites, bad bacteria, fungus), to initiate the digestion of protein, and to help unbind minerals from food so that we can make use of them. Unfortunately, most people (not just the elderly!) don’t make enough stomach acid because of poor eating habits (overeating, high meat diet, too many refined carbs), or something as simple as not drinking enough water, which is crucial for producing stomach acid.

When there isn’t enough stomach acid in the stomach, food isn’t able to digest as fast as it should. That means it’ll sit around, ferment, off-gas and create an acid backsplash. Sound familiar…? Ding ding ding! That’s heartburn!

Now imagine what you’re doing to the health of your stomach if you’re taking an antacid on a frequent basis, or if you’re taking a PPI that prevents the parietal cells from secreting acid. While the antacid will temporarily alleviate pain from the acid backsplash, it will further deplete stomach acid and make you more prone to indigestion, heartburn, bloating, infections, and mineral deficiencies.

So why are antacids still being prescribed? 

Here are my two guesses:

1) It’s a quick fix, and the human race loves quick fixes. So much in fact, that we’re now spending over CDN 14 billion  annually on indigestion medication worldwide.

2) Medical schools are heavily influenced by the pharmaceutical industry, and doctors are told that antacids are the best way to treat heartburn. (It’s also the best way to generate $14 billion in revenue!) In fact, a recent article by CBC revealed that 40% of patients on an acid blocker or PPI are being prescribed unnecessarily; not to be be taken lightly considering they increase the risk of fractures and kidney disease, to name a few.

How do you know if you have low stomach acid? Here’s two ways to put it to the test:

Test 1: Betaine HCL 

  • Purchase Betaine HCL (hydrochloric acid, which is the same as stomach acid) from a health food store or online. It’s super cheap, around $10-$15!
  • Take one pill a few minutes before a high protein meal; if it creates a burning sensation in your chest, then you have too much stomach acid. Side note: this has never happened to a single client of mine, myself or my husband. Most people have low stomach acid!
  • If one pill didn’t burn, take two pills before your next meal. If nothing happens, take one more at each meal until you reach a number that causes discomfort (go up to eight pills max)
  • Once you find the dose that makes you feel the burn, dose down by one pill. This is the amount to take before every meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner) until you can dose down by one pill again.
  • Continue to dose down until you reach two pills or less.

Test 2: Apple Cider Vinegar 

  • Take 1 tablespoon of ACV in a small amount of water before a meal. If you feel better and less bloated after your meal, you’ll know that your stomach acid needed a boost. Why else would an acid help relieve your heartburn? Continue to take this before each mealtime until it continues to be helpful.
  • Note: you can also take ACV to find relief from heartburn after a meal, simply take the same dosage above.

Here are some other ways to avoid heartburn:

  • Chew slowly and eat small portions
  • Drink enough water! You can’t make stomach acid without it. Aim for 2-3L per day.
  • Eat bitter greens (dandelion greens, kale, arugula) to stimulate digestion
  • Eat real, whole foods and avoid processed food
  • Try not to eat late at night, and if you do, go walk it off!
  • Purchase digestive enzymes from a health food store to help break down your food



About Alina

I'm a Holistic Nutritionist based in Toronto, Canada and my official title is Certified Nutritional Practitioner (CNP). I received my diploma in Applied Holistic Nutrition from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. I'm a coach and an educator. Follow Alina on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram for all of the latest updates.
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  1. What if you have no gall bladder and your liver just dumps acid into your stomach with no rhyme nor reason? Sometimes there’s too much and sometimes too little. Is there a way to help regulate that situation? I would dearly love to get off the ppi!

    1. Hi Jan, sorry to hear you have to go through that. When you don’t have a gall bladder, bile acids aren’t released at the appropriate time and kind of just continue to trickle all the time, which can cause bloating, gas and feelings of indigestion. I would recommend using digestive enzymes to help ease those symptoms. I have a client without a gall bladder who swears by this product I told her to purchase:

      This brand of enzymes in particular is great since it contains some ox bile to make up for the lack of concentrated bile present in your body. Simply take these enzymes before each meal.

  2. These are also symptoms of Ovarian Cancer. I thought I had Acid,Reflux, but it was OC.. Please have an ultrasound if you have these symptoms. Survival chances are much higher if caught early.

    1. Thank you for that information and very sorry to hear you went through this experience. I hope you are doing better now.

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