Written by John Immel,
Milk has long been considered an effective home remedy for acid reflux, but does it really work?
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Many find milk immediately soothing. When the churning and burning symptoms of acid reflux strike, it can be tempting to grab a tall glass of cool milk straight from the fridge. But is milk actually helpful or does it make acid reflux worse in the long run?
The answer overturns what many think and believe about acid reflux, and its cause. This article will outline the surprising root cause of acid reflux, and thus reveal whether or not milk, and popping antacids, are the best remedies to relieve burning sensations.
The Real Root of Acid RefluxA common misconception is that acid reflux results from too much acid in the stomach, called hyperacidity. Many are shocked to learn that, usually, the real cause of most acid reflux is scanty, insufficient acids! Acid deficiency is a condition called hypoacidity. Here's why acid deficiency causes more acid reflux:
As a person ages, the acid producing cells of the stomach start to die off, a process called atrophy that leads to weak stomach acid production. Dehydration also contributes to low acid production.
When stomach acids are weak or deficient, food sits in the stomach for a long time, partially undigested. This called food stagnation.
The longer these stagnant foods sit and churn in the stomach, they more they tend to regurgitate. In regurgitation, also known as reflux, food backs up through the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and into the esophagus.
This regurgitating food causes the uncomfortable heartburn because the acid mixed with it damages and irritates the esophagus.
Hypersecretion of acid in the stomach does happen, but it is more rare. The regurgitation of acidic food up into the esophagus, because of slow, stagnant digestion, is the more common cause.
A leaky valva at the top of the stomach (called a hiatal hernia) is a 3rd common cause of acid reflux.
With these three types in mind, hyperacidity, hypoacidity, and hiatal hernia, let's find out whether milk and antacids are a good choice for acid reflux.
Is Milk a Friend or Foe in Acid Reflux?So is milk a friend or foe in acid reflux? Although milk provides quick, soothing relief in the moment, studies show that milk also increases stomach acid production soon after the effect wears off, making hyperacidity worse. What about antacids? Here, antacids are beneficial as they suppress hypersecretion of acids. However, antacids do not treat the cause of hypersecretion.
Let's consider the case of milk for hypoacidity. In Ayurveda, milk is heavy, cold, gooey and sweet. These qualities (biocharacteristics) build the mucous membrane in the stomach, soothing and reducing inflammation, which can be a good thing.
However, mucus also buffers (reduces) the action of acids in the stomach, causing food to sit longer. This is bad news for folks with hypoacidity due to food stagnation, the most common form of acid reflux. For those with hypoacidity, milk just makes your stomach work harder against the mucus.
If you drink a big glass of milk during an acid reflux attack or take an antacid, any relief it brings is likely to be short lived. Instead of fixing the problem, these destroy what little acid you have.
The situation is even worse if the milk is cold from the fridge. Cold liquids cause constriction of blood vessels to the digestive tract and shut down blood flow to digestive organs. This lack of blood flow reduces the energy your stomach needs to produce acid and break down food. Then the food sits stagnant.
Modern milk is even harder to digest because of pasteurization and homogenization. Pasteurization (cooking the milk) destroys natural enzymes in the milk that help you digest it. Homogenization breaks up all the cream in the milk into microscopic particles which irritate the lining of the digestive tract.
What about the use of milk for hiatal hernia? The fats in milk have been shown to relax the LES valve, breaking the seal and making it more likely your food will regurgitate upwards. Thus, we conclude that for hypoacidity, and hital hernia, milk is problematic despite the short term feeling of relief.
But for hyperacidity, milk can be beneficial.
You might be wondering, "Why do doctors prescribe antacids even though hypoacidity and hiatal hernia are the most common causes of acid reflux?"
Doctors recommend antacids to prevent erosion and damage to your esophagus. And, antacids can help reduce inflammation around the LES valve. With swelling and inflammation reduced, LES function improves and that can bring long term prevention.
Even when antacids do not fix the problem, preventing damage to your esophagus remains important. Esophageal cancer is common and life threatening.
So, check with your doctor to determine whether antacid or any of the remedies below are right for you.
What Should I Do Instead?Even if you take antacids for acute heartburn, take steps to remove the underlying cause. While you may think acid reflux is just another annoying symptom, easily abated with an antacid, Ayurveda views it as a much deeper imbalance. Left unchecked, acid reflux can cause more serious digestive complications.
Instead of grabbing some milk, consider these home remedies to stop acid reflux naturally. Reach for some pomegranate juice instead of milk. Cooling and astringent, pomegranate juice soothes burning irritation leaving you feeling refreshed and comfortable. Juice from a wedge of lemon offers surprisingly quick, short term relief for all forms of acid reflux, with very few side effects.
For acid reflux due to hypoacidity, sip a cup of ginger and fennel tea to improve digestion and acid output. The spicey qualities of ginger and the aromatic qualities of fennel will stimulate acid production and break up acid blocking mucus. Aromatics also accelerate gastric emptying of the stomach, clearing food stagnation. Bitter orange peel is considered one of the most effective aromatic herbs for clearing food stagnation.
For hiatal hernia, avoid smoking, alcohol, dairy, and aromatic herbs (like peppermint) that relax the LES. Follow the tips on our hiatal hernia page.
PreventionWhile you may want immediate relief from your reflux, prevention is always better than a cure. If you have hyperacidity - treat the cause, which is usually stress or inflammation related. For long-term management and prevention of hyperacidity reflux, follow a diet of cooling Pitta pacifying foods. Reduce stress and intense emotions which can increase Pitta dosha and acidity.
For hypoacidity, at your next meal, eat easy to digest foods such as soups. Easy to digest foods ensure that food stagnation and churning will be minimal. A kitchari cleanse is also useful to help reset digestion, clear out food stagnation and rev up your digestive fire (build agni).
To heal irritated tissues of your gut, try bone broth. The amino acids present in bone broth such as cysteine, histidine and glycine are known to reduce gut inflammation. Avipattikar churna promotes balanced acid levels in the stomach.
ConclusionThe most common cause of acid reflux is not hypersecretion of acids. Deficient secretion, called hypoacidity, is far more common. Milk, though soothing, aggravates acid reflux in all types. Antacids aren't categorically deemed "good" or "bad" for acid reflux in Ayurveda, and its status as a remedy changes depending on the person, type of acid reflux, and risk of damage to the esophagus.
Instead of turning to milk every time you have a burning sensation, Ayurveda offers other effective home remedies, depending on the root cause of your reflux. While there are options to avail immediate relief, prevention is always better than a cure, so implementing a diet and lifestyle for long-term management is also essential.
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About the AuthorJohn Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda biocharacteristics. His approach to Ayurveda is clinical, yet exudes an ease which many find enjoyable and insightful. John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda, offering professional clinical training in Ayurveda for over 15 years.
John's interest in Ayurveda and specialization in digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, as well as public service work in South Asia. John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion. John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing. In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.
John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots, and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church. Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick. That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well. Outside of work, John enjoys spending time with his wife and 6 kids, and pursuing his love of theology, philosophy, and language.
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