After struggling with GERD (gastroesophageal acid reflux disease) for more than a decade, it took a surprise discovery and change of perspective for me to cure myself of it.
Diagnosed with GERD
Back in the late 90′s I began experiencing recurring sore throats and fevers, coupled with congestion. I saw my primary care physician about it and each time he prescribed an antibiotic, which fixed things only until a week after the antibiotic ran out.
After a few of these cycles, I saw an ear, nose, and throat specialist who quickly diagnosed my problem as GERD (gastroesophageal acid reflux disease). He referred me to a gastroenterologist who prescribed a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), the most common type of acid reducer prescribed today. (PPI’s have been around since 1989 in the U.S. and according to Nature Reviews: Drug Discovery, PPI’s were a $13.5 billion U.S. industry back in 2003). PPI’s stop acid reflux by reducing the stomach’s output of acid by over 90%.
The PPI worked wonders. It wasn’t long before I was free of sore throat symptoms. I followed my doctor’s accompanying advice to elevate the head of my bed and avoid foods that triggered my reflux symptoms, which in my case included carbonated drinks, chocolate, and greasy foods.
Catch the Rebound!
After a couple weeks of PPIs and avoiding my trigger foods, I felt like I had a handle on the problem and tried stopping the medication.
Wow, was that a mistake!
My reflux symptoms returned with a vengeance. Before the PPI, I rarely felt the refluxing occur—the first indication of a problem was typically a sore throat. Now, however, stopping the PPI resulted in unabashed refluxing. Nasty, throat burning, gagging refluxing. My doctor was right: I have GERD.
I couldn’t get back on the PPI fast enough and feel the blessed relief that it brought.
Still, I didn’t want to take the PPI (or any medication) forever. For one, it was pretty pricey and also, I have trouble believing that any medication that affects the body this dramatically is completely safe if taken for the rest of one’s life.
So after a few months I tried stopping again. Same result. Horrible rebound acid reflux.
I even tore open a bunch of my PPI capsules, poured the contents into a dish, and used an analytical balance (an analytical balance is a scale capable of measuring to the ten thousandth or one hundred thousandth of a gram) to make a series of decreasingly strong capsules by carefully refilling new, empty gel caps. My thought was that I could taper off from my current dose to zero over a period of sixty days or so and maybe I wouldn’t experience the rebound effect.
Nice try, but no dice.
Repeat this process numerous times over the ensuing years (except for the painfully time consuming analytical balance part) and I realized that proton pump inhibitors are only slightly less addicting than crack.
I recently read a study from 2009 confirming my experience with rebounding. According to the study, stopping PPI’s causes rebound symptoms of even greater acid reflux. (Big surprise there.) What’s also not surprising is that it took a group of independent researchers, not the pharmaceutical companies developing this stuff, to confirm this fact in a double-blind, placebo controlled study. (I’m sure that the pharmaceutical companies creating PPI’s innocently failed to notice this effect during their extensive development efforts.)
Is the PPI Part of the Problem?
The more I learned about the problem, the more I came to believe that the proton pump inhibitor was contributing to the very problem it was marketed to solve. After all, how does reducing stomach acid production by 90% or more, thereby causing undigested food to slosh around in the stomach for hours, help prevent reflux? It seemed that the better thing to do would be to quickly and effectively digest the food, not leave it undigested and festering as it passes from start to finish. (There were times that I could still feel food that I had eaten 8 or 9 hours previously, still sloshing around in my stomach and refluxing into my throat. Ick.)
Moreover, a warning from the FDA that PPI’s are harmful to bone formation in individuals taking them for more than one year only reinforced my desire to quit.
I was also concerned that by having only a fraction of the normal acid levels in my stomach, I would be more susceptible to food poisoning.
It was clear that the PPI’s just had to go.
How Did That Happen?
When I was just starting to believe that a PPI would be part of my life forever, despite my increased desire to quit, I cured my GERD entirely by accident.
I stopped eating wheat.
Compelled by the blog postings of cardiologist Dr. William Davis and fueled by a desire to lower my postprandial (after eating) blood glucose levels, I gave up wheat in Spring 2010. I never expected that it would have any effect on my acid reflux, but it did. (I have since read Dr. Davis’ book Wheat Belly in which he cites hundreds of patients who told him that they were surprised to find themselves cured of GERD by eliminating wheat for other reasons.)
Within a couple of weeks of eliminating wheat, my reflux symptoms had abated considerably. They weren’t completely gone but they were better than they had ever been since starting on the PPI’s.
Focusing on the Problem, Not the Symptom
I immediately began investigating why eliminating wheat would produce such dramatic relief to my GERD symptoms and very shortly thereafter I realized the mistake I had been making for so many years:
Instead of focusing on the problem, I had been fixating on the symptom. I had been trying to identify which foods were a trigger instead of what foods were causing the underlying condition.
You see, GERD is not a disease. GERD is a symptom of a greater problem and treating the reflux without treating the underlying problem only results in a lifetime of taking PPI’s.
The problem that causes GERD is the disruption of the body’s healthy digestive process. The first disruption is the reduction of stomach acid, the very thing that the treatment for GERD does. Yes, blocking 90% of stomach acid production results in less reflux, but it also ensures that the food one consumes lays undigested in the stomach for far longer than it would if normal acid levels were present.
The next broken link in the digestive chain is the gut flora, the bacteria resident in the digestive tract. A healthy gut flora is vital to effective digestion. Unfortunately, our digestive tract is very much a battlefield, with helpful bacteria and harmful bacteria constantly fighting for dominance. In a person with healthy gut flora, the unhealthy bacteria is held to minimal levels whereas someone who has disrupted their gut flora with frequent doses of antibiotics and who have eaten grains (especially highly refined grains) and sugar, has produced an environment conducive to unhealthy gut flora.
What this meant for me is that if I wanted to continue being free of GERD, without taking a PPI, I had to restore my digestive health as thoroughly as possible.
I began with the writings of Drs. Michael and Mary Eades in The Protein Power Lifeplan, a book that caught my attention while I was reading the blog postings of cardiologist Dr. William Davis, by whom I had been inspired to try eliminating wheat from my diet. The Drs. Eades recommended restoring one’s gut flora by fasting for two or three days, subsisting only on a high quality protein powder, supplemented with glutamine. Glutamine, they advised, was an effective food source for healthy gut flora but unhealthy gut bacteria was unable to use it as an energy source. By limiting one’s diet in this way for a few days, one could conceivably shift the intestinal landscape dramatically in favor of healthy bacteria.
I followed their advice for three days and then returned to a diet devoid of any grains or refined sugar, supplemented with a high quality probiotic. The results were dramatic. My remaining reflux symptoms were gone. I felt truly GERD-free for the first time in over a decade.
The following week was a joy, punctuated occasionally by annoying flare-up as my long dormant acid production mechanism began working again. My continued research indicated that I could help eliminate the occasional GERD flare-ups by chewing a DGL (deglycyrrhizinated liquorice) prior to meals that might contain trigger foods or prior to especially large meals. (Glycyrrhizin is known to cause negative side effects, including fluid retention and high blood pressure, so it’s removed when licorice is used as an herbal supplement.)
After about a week or ten days of intermittent fasting when flare-ups were threatening, coupled with careful eating, it seemed that my stomach had finally settled down and was producing acid normally.
It’s been more than eighteen months since I stopped taking my PPI and my GERD symptoms are still gone. The once or twice that I’ve fallen off of the “wheat-free” wagon, my GERD returned aggressively for about eight to twelve hours each time, reinforcing my belief that wheat is a primary culprit.
It’s easy to blame the pharmaceutical companies for exploiting this malady by labeling it GERD, treating a symptom as though it were a disease, and raking in billions of dollars, but we consumers are part of the problem, too, by seeking the quick fix of a daily pill instead of pursuing the root causes of GERD and making meaningful lifestyle changes to truly solve the problem.
What I Learned
- GERD is not a disease. GERD is a symptom of a greatly disrupted digestive system. Healing the digestive system will stop the GERD.
- Grains, especially wheat, are a significant cause of a disrupted digestive system.
- Processed sugar and starches are, too.
- Don’t confuse a root cause with a trigger food. A food can cause the underlying digestive disruption without being a specific trigger for reflux (e.g., processed sugar) or a food can be a trigger without being a root cause (e.g., chocolate was a trigger when I had GERD but is not a problem now). Moreover, trigger foods can vary from person to person.