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Low Acid or High? Treating a Common Digestive Ailment
by Leigh Glenn,
ATH Asst. Editor of Herbalism
Editor's Note from Leigh Glenn: Acupuncturist and herbalist Althea Northage-Orr gave a helpful presentation on digestive disorders at the 2011 American Herbalists Guild conference in St. Pete Beach, Fla., October 2011. In this article, I draw from her discussion of stomach conditions of hyper- and hypoacidity and which plants to use to address them. It's important to note that when dealing with GERD that is hyperacid in nature, bitters are contraindicated in the early stages of treatment as they will increase stomach acid secretions as well as peristalsis.
One of the most common digestive complaints among Americans is “acid indigestion.” We’ve all seen our share of TV ads for drugs to relieve the condition. In fact, the top-retailing drug in the U.S. in 2010—coming in at $5.27-plus billion in total sales—was a proton-pump inhibitor sold to treat Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Even a very popular U.S. magazine in November 2011 included a doctor’s column about treating “holiday heartburn” with over-the-counter antacids.
The problem that many herbalists encounter among clients is that there may be too little—not too much—acid, which can create symptoms that include indigestion. The key thing is to distinguish between hyper—too much—and hypo—too little—acid. GERD can be caused by either, so it’s important to know which you’re dealing with.
Althea Northage-Orr, an acupuncturist, cofounder with her husband John Northage of Transformational Techniques and the Chicago College of Healing Arts and as well as an American Herbalists Guild (AHG) council member and an AHG registered herbalist, spoke about these conditions as part of a broader talk on digestive disorders in October 2011 at the annual AHG Conference in St. Pete Beach, Fla.
Knowing what to do means first knowing what to treat. Hyperacidity symptoms include the following: pain lessens after eating; the empty stomach feels hollow; the person may have sensations of ravenous hunger—even if she or he just ate; spices and bitters worsen the feeling while bland foods help the person feel better.
Symptoms of hypoacidity include pain made worse right after eating and the feeling of discomfort and heaviness/fullness lasts for an hour or more (the person feels like “I swallowed a brick”); and the symptoms are improved when fermented foods are added or bitters are taken.
Low Stomach Acid
The lining of the stomach is acidic in nature. Given the task of the stomach—and its interface with food and other things brought in from outside—this acidity protects us from things that could do us harm and is also needed to break down food and make nutrition available to us. If there’s not enough acid, the food does not break down readily and the buildup of pressure in the stomach pushes against the lower esophageal sphincter, which sits at the top of the stomach, causing a “repeat” sensation as gases back up into the esophagus. Acidity production wanes with age, so hypoacidity may be seen more often in elders.
Traditionally, people used warming bitters and carminatives—dandelion, wormwood, ginger, fennel, chamomile—to stimulate bile production to help break down food. Fermented foods, such as kimchi and sauerkrauts, also can be helpful in this regard as can a little apple cider vinegar. Adding greens, especially bitter greens, to the diet can also help. These might include dandelion greens, arugula or radicchio. If these do not work, a person may need to get Betaine HCl and try that, but Northage-Orr suggests combining it with a demulcent, such as marshmallow root.
High Stomach Acid
Here’s where we turn to herbal teas. Northage-Orr suggests meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), cranesbill/wild geranium (Geranium maculata), slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), marshmallow root (Althea offinalis), and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). There is also a ready-made formula, Bastyr B, which includes many of these plants. If the person is experiencing esophageal spasms, crampbark (Viburnum opulus), black haw (Viburnum prunifolium), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), and catnip (Nepeta cataria) may be added. The person may also take a small amount of lobelia (Lobelia inflata), in tincture form, 8 to 10 drops in water. This is more for when it feels like they “just swallowed a golf ball and it got stuck” or it feels like they’re having a heart attack.
Northage-Orr’s own blend, Althea’s Tummy Tea, includes meadowsweet, wild yam, licorice, catnip, chamomile and cranesbill in equal parts along with anise or peppermint for flavoring.
Ingredients can often be found at local health food stores or online. For any of the digestive teas, you can make a jar in the morning and drink at least two cups during the day. If the amount is 1 T to 1 cup of boiling water, it needs to steep 15 minutes. If making a quart jar, then 4 T to the quart and let it steep at least one hour. (These can also be made the night before, though my own preference is to drink them warmer, because that seems to help digestion.)
Northage-Orr also recommends paying attention to dietary and lifestyle factors. For example, it’s important to avoid processed foods, eat more like our pre-agricultural ancestors ate, dial back on refined carbs, avoid fad diets and too-cold and allergy-inducing foods. Too-cold foods can include fruit. “Our bodies aren’t used to eating fruit year round,” Northage-Orr says.
Lifestyle changes may include taking the time to eat, paying attention to where you eat (e.g., not in front of the television), and not eating too late at night. If there’s GERD, for instance, eat at least three hours or more before bedtime. And try to de-stress as much as possible; catnip can be helpful for people who feel anxious and overfocused.
Allthingshealing.com features many more articles about indigestion and GERD from using different forms of healing. Be sure to search the site using words such as “indigestion” and “GERD.”
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About the Author
Leigh Glenn is an herbal educator and owner of Art of Earth, LLC, based in Annapolis, MD, where she offers wellness consultations, remedy-making classes and plant walks. She is completing the third of a three-year community herbalist program at Sacred Plant Traditions in Charlottesville, VA, which offers students core curriculum in the energetics of traditional Western herbalism as well as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. A family health crisis in 2000 led her to pursue more healthful ways of living, involving locally grown plant foods, grassfed meat and pastured poultry, gardening and, of course, herbs. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, a nonprofit educational organization, and United Plant Savers, whose mission is to protect at-risk medicinal plants native to the US and Canada and preserve their habitats.
For more than 20 years, Leigh has worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines and more recently as a speechwriter and Web editor. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, and a bachelor’s in English from the University of Florida, along with a certificate in Permaculture Design from the Blue Ridge Permaculture Network.