Reduce or Prevent Heartburn, Acid Reflux, or GERD with Traditional Chinese Medicine

Heartburn can be a sign of acid reflux or its chronic form, GERD or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. GERD is a disorder that causes stomach acid and contents to reflux or regurgitate into the esophagus.

The stomach acid can inflame and injure the lining of the esophagus, although sometimes no indication of inflammation can be seen in some patients. Relatively healthy people have a lower esophagus sphincter that remains closed, hindering stomach content from going back into the esophagus. Heartburn is the burning that can be felt in the mid to upper chest and is caused by the same malfunctioning of the esophagus.

Besides heartburn, the signs of symptoms of acid reflux/GERD include a change in the person’s voice, sore throat, nausea, chronic bronchitis, asthma, and coughing. A stress filled lifestyle as well as chocolate, spicy and fatty foods, acidic fruit juices, tomatoes, and caffeine can also lead to heartburn.

According to the National Institutes for Health and World Health Organization traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) treatments such as acupuncture in Jacksonville can be a natural form of treatment for acid reflux or GERD and many other digestive conditions like colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, gastritis, and food allergies.

GERD is seen by Western medicine as having one main cause, which is different to TCM that views the condition as having several possible different diagnoses, known as patterns. According to TCM, the digestive function of the stomach is aided by the spleen, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder; when these organs dysfunction, it causes an imbalance in the digestive system causing heartburn and acid reflux/GERD to occur.

Emotional stress that disrupts the flow of vital energy or Chi can also contribute to acid reflux/GERD. Emotional stress tends to affect a cranial nerve (vagus nerve) that controls stomach secretion causing a rise in secretion of various gastric acids as well as contraction of the stomach muscles.

Qi gong, Tai Chi, Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture and other TCM procedures can be used to help treat acid reflux/GERD. These treatments have the power to balance the functions of the digestive organs, regulate esophageal pressure, and lower gastric acid content.

Your acupuncturist can diagnose your condition after evaluating you. A plan of treatment is then made to address the symptoms as well as the underlying cause of the problem. Besides the above mentioned TCM treatments, a dietary modification and stress management plan will be suggested by your acupuncturist to prevent heartburn and acid reflux/GERD.

TCM treatments restore the healthy flow of Chi and decrease emotional stress. Acupuncture treatment stimulates specific acupuncture points to prevent the relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter helping reduce or prevent the occurrence of heartburn and acid reflux/GERD. Acupuncture points chosen for treatment are found in the legs, lower arms, and in the stomach area.

Moderate regular exercise, good sleeping patterns, lifestyle changes along with TCM treatments can lead to the restoration of proper digestion and prevention of heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD.

How Chinese Medicine Can Be Used to Stop GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, for short, is a condition in which abdominal contents reflux or flow back into the esophagus.

The signs of GERD are as follows:

  • Nausea after eating
  • Heartburn that may occur after laying down, when bending over, or after eating
  • A sensation of something stuck in the throat
  • Chest pain
  • Bitter taste in the mouth
  • Acid reflux

The Western ways of treating GERD include:

  • Smoking Cessation
  • Elevating the head during sleep
  • Staying away from foods that trigger symptoms such as spicy foods and alcohol
  • Antacids after eating

Gastroesophageal reflux disease has also been known to cause further complications. It may lead to the following conditions if left untreated:

  • Irritation of the airways
  • Dental problems due to the incessant acid regurgitation
  • Cough
  • Damage to the lining of the esophagus that may lead to the inflammation of the esophagus, a narrowing of the esophagus, or cancer

GERD, according to Chinese medicine, is usually caused by liver-spleen or wood-earth disharmony complicated by heat. This occurs when the qi n the liver channel does not flow smoothly due to blockage or stress and the spleen meridian being unable to perform its digestive functions normally. Heat is the factor causing the person difficulty in eating certain foods as well as the factor responsible for the burning sensation.

Specific herbs and acupuncture are the most effective Chinese medicine treatments in Bellingham that can boost your spleen qi, move your liver qi, clear heat, and prevent the stomach contents from flowing back into the esophagus. The treatment involves sleeping in an elevated position. The goal is to stop the nauseous feeling after eating, eliminate the sensation of something stuck in the throat, halt acid regurgitation, and remove one’s dependence on medications (antacids). This way, one can avoid the discomforts of the signs and symptoms of GERD, and go back doing to one’s normal activities.

How Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture Can Help Bring About Resolution to the Symptoms of GERD

GERD (Gastro-esophageal Reflux Disease) is a condition caused by a dysfunctional lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This sphincter is the “door” that separates the esophagus to the abdomen. If the LES does not close in an appropriate manner (opens when it shouldn’t), it causes the backflow of stomach contents and acid into the esophagus and the mouth.

Normally, through peristalsis, food is conveyed down the esophagus. The LES eases down to allow food and fluids to pass into the stomach. After the food and/or fluids enter the stomach, it then closes immediately once more. If the sphincter relaxes when it shouldn’t or does not close completely shut, reflux happens. The flow back of the highly acidic stomach contents into the esophagus may result in pain and if this condition keeps on occurring, over time, it will lead to the damage of the esophageal lining. Practically everyone experiences heartburn from time to time, but when it happens on a regular basis or many times a week, it results in the chronic irritation of the esophagus, which may eventually turn into GERD. Heartburn is the typical symptom of GERD. Dysphagia, a sensation of a lump in the throat, abundant saliva production, a sour taste in the mouth, constant burping, and regurgitation are the other telltale signs of GERD.

People over the age of 40 are more susceptible to GERD than people of younger age. In the United States, the American Gastroenterological Association estimates that around 34% of Americans suffer from GERD.

Diagnostic exams such as endoscopy, x-ray with barium swallow, and testing of esophageal activity, are usually done to rule out esophageal cancer or Barrett’s esophagus or in instances where the patient does not respond to medications. GERD is often based on its manifested symptoms.

Citrus, tomatoes and other acidic foods as well as fried or fatty foods, onions, and garlic are foods that can trigger GERD. Stomach acid production can increase (making one at higher risk for GERD) when one keeps on drinking alcohol, soda, or coffee. Certain factors that can cause the LES to relax include smoking cigarettes, alcohol, chocolate, and peppermint. They all can potentially worsen the reflux. Hiatal hernia, a health issue in which a part of the stomach sticks upward through the diaphragm, pregnancy, and obesity, pregnancy, all may add to the pressure on the abdomen and can be contributory factors to the occurrence of GERD.

Unfortunately, Western modern medicine has no real cure for GERD. When treating it, the objective is to alleviate the symptoms and minimize the damage. Surgery can be performed to make the LES a bit tighter. Surgery is an option after all medical options have been tried. PPIs (proton pump inhibitors) such as Prevacid or Protonix are the most common drugs used for GERD. These drugs are designed to significantly decrease stomach acid production. They are more potent than the older generation of drugs (Histamine-2 blockers), which leads to a much better degree of healing.

Proton pump inhibitors are quite effective measures to relieve the painful symptoms of GERD; however, being pharmaceutical drugs, when taken for extended periods of time, they tend to bring about a number of health concerns. The environmental acidity needs to be lessened for at least a month to a month and a half in order to promote the healing of ulcers that develop in the esophageal lining. PPIs are excellent in addressing too much stomach acidity. However, in certain cases, these ulcers can turn chronic and may need constant and long-term PPI treatment. There now are studies that show that the long term intake of PPIs and the longstanding inhibition of stomach acid production may lead to an insufficient amount of stomach acid to help dissolve, digest, and absorb important nutrients such as calcium and vitamin B12. Eventually, the inadequate absorption of these nutrients may cause vitamin deficiency and affect the process of bone re-absorption and bone development leading to weak and fragile bones. A weak bone condition may be a huge problem particularly for women in menopause who already may be having a difficult time coping with the significant loss of bone density and production in their body due to their menopause. Prolonged usage of PPIs also has been associated to a rise in the number of gastric polyps in the body. Longstanding use of PPIs has also been linked to dependency to the drug with significant symptoms of rebound upon abrupt stoppage.

From the perspective of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), GERD is a sign of a broader systemic imbalance in the body. Reflux and heartburn symptoms, in TCM, are usually attributed to be the result of a battle the liver and the abdomen. The liver in Chinese medicine is viewed as the organ responsible for keeping everything in the body (blood, digestions emotions, energy) smoothly flowing in their proper directions. An overworked or weakened liver can lead to severe and long term stress. The liver then becomes too week or stressed to perform its responsibilities normally. This affects the flow of energy, emotions, digestion, and blood causing the flow to “rebel” or go the opposite direction. Usually a counter flow occurs when the flow becomes directed sideways into the stomach. The proper energy flow of the stomach is southwards. When the stomach is affected by the rebellious energy flow of the liver, the flow goes northward or upward potentially resulting in chronic signs and symptoms such as reflux, heartburn, burping, and greasy thick tongue coating. One typical sign of qi liver stagnation is “plum pit qi” or dysphagia, a lumping feeling in the throat, usually accompanied by a throat-clearing cough.

The main dissimilarity in the way TCM and Western medicine treat GERD symptoms lies in their understanding of how stress affects the body and the evolution of pathology in TCM is firmly imbedded into its theory. In an acupuncture differential diagnosis, the practitioner will always look at how stress affects the relationships of the organ systems to each other. The imbalances that arise from this as well as the symptoms are then identified and then treated accordingly.

The treatment approach for reflux, heartburn and the other GERD symptoms will be determined on the specific presentation of the patient. Typically, the aim of the treatment for GERD is to normalize and calm the liver as well as relieve the stress that causes it to beat up on the abdomen, bring back the natural downward flow of stomach qi, remove the heat, and clear the dampness that often accumulates when the stomach qi is disturbed. Both Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture in Louisville can provide answers to these objectives. Based on the severity of your symptoms, your lifestyle, and preference you might opt for one or both of these treatments. You can also opt for either treatment as an added therapy to Western modes of treatment to help better manage your symptoms, to lessen the dosage of your drugs or to decrease the side effects of those drugs.

Combining Medications, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine is the Best Way of Treating GERD

When the lower esophageal sphincter malfunctions (it opens when it shouldn’t or does not properly close) a condition known as GERD (Gastro-esophageal Reflux Disease) occurs. This condition causes the backflow of stomach contents and acid into the esophagus and the throat.

Normally, peristalsis allows the ingested food to move downward from the mouth to the esophagus. The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) opens up to enable the food to enter the stomach; once the food passes the abdomen the LES immediately closes. If the valve relaxes or has a problem closing completely, reflux happens. Since stomach acid accompanies the backflow of stomach contents, they irritate the esophageal wall causing pain and discomfort. Frequent occurrences of reflux will eventually damage the esophageal wall. We all occasionally experience heartburn but when it happens many times each week, the frequent irritation of the esophagus eventually leads to a chronic acid reflux condition known as GERD. Besides the most obvious symptom of heartburn, other symptoms of GERD include chronic coughing, dysphagia (swallowing problems), abundant production of saliva, an acrid taste in the mouth, frequent burping, and regurgitation.

According to the American Gastroenterological Association a third of the population of the United States suffers from GERD each year. High risk individuals are people over the age of 40 although GERD can strike people at any age.

Doctors diagnose GERD based on the symptoms. Diagnostic tools to test for this disorder include barium swallow with x-ray (performed on patients whose condition does not respond to medications), pressure testing of the lower esophageal sphincter, esophageal activity testing, and endoscopy. Barium swallow with x-ray is also performed to rule out GERD-like conditions such as cancer of the esophagus or Barrett’s esophagus.

When it comes to triggers for GERD, certain foods that are acidic such as citrus and tomatoes among others can precipitate the development of this condition. Other food triggers include onions, garlic and spicy foods as well as alcohol, soda and coffee. One can also include chocolate and peppermint into this list. Smoking cigarettes can relax the LES or make a current GERD condition even worse. A hiatal hernia, obesity and pregnancy all are factors that add pressure on the stomach and can also cause the occurrence of GERD.

Sadly, no cure for this condition exists and so the aim of GERD treatment is to alleviate the symptoms and minimize the damage. Surgery is an option and its aim is to tighten the LES; it is not considered a first-line treatment for GERD. PPIs (proton pump inhibitors) such as Prilosec are Nexium are the most commonly prescribed drugs for GERD. They can lessen the output of stomach acid and thus help prevent the rise of GERD.

Basically, PPIs provide significant relief of the symptoms of GERD; the problem is that long term use of these drugs can result in certain adverse side effects. To completely heal the ulcers caused by GERD, the body’s environmental acidity needs to be neutralized for a month to three months. In this role, PPIs are excellent choices for this. However, for chronic ulcers, frequent use of these drugs is required. Certain studies have suggested that extended PPI intake can do more harm than good to the body. Long-term PPI use can lead to a stomach environment in which acid is severely inadequate to process and absorb vital nutrients including calcium and vitamin B12. This can eventually result in lack of vitamins in the body and disrupt the cycle of re-absorption and creation of bones, resulting in weak and fragile bones. Women who are in menopause are especially affected by this since their state of menopause already may be causing them significant bone loss. Gastric polyps and even rebound symptoms (upon cessation of intake) and dependency can also occur from long term use of PPIs.

When seen from the perspective of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), GERD is a sign of a hidden internal imbalance. Practitioners of TCM believe that reflux and heartburn are the result of strife between the abdomen and the liver. In TCM, the liver is the organ system responsible for keeping everything in the body (blood, digestion, energy, emotions) and ensures that everything in the body flows smoothly and in their proper directions. If the liver is overworked, often because of severe and/or frequent stress, it weakens and fails to keep everything flowing smoothly. The normal flow and direction of things becomes disrupted and oftentimes things start to flow in opposite directions. This is known as a rebellious liver qi when things flow in their opposite direction. Thus the normal flow of food towards the stomach is reversed causing the flow of stomach contents back into the esophagus; the energy flow of the stomach rebels upwards resulting in GERD symptoms such as reflux, heartburn, frequent burping, and a thick greasy tongue coating. Some clear signs of stagnation of liver qi is a “plum pit qi” which is characterized as a lumpy sensation in the throat that is usually accompanied by a cough.

Western medicine and TCM have different methodologies when it comes to treating GERD. Unlike TCM, Western medicine does not consider stress to be a huge factor in the pathological development of GERD. TCM has a term known as differential diagnosis in which the impact of stress causes patterns of disharmony and imbalances between the organ systems of the body. Acupuncturists are trained to treat these disharmonies and imbalances and of course, the symptoms of the condition, as well.

The plan of treatment for reflux, heartburn and other GERD symptoms depends on the patient’s constitution as well as his/her presenting symptoms. Most of the time, acupuncturists normalize and sooth the liver, relieving the stress that causes the liver to rebel against its neighbor the stomach. These practitioners help bring back the normal downward movement of qi in the stomach, dispel heat and clear the dampness that usually accumulates when the stomach qi is interrupted. Chinese herbal medicine is often combined with acupuncture for the treatment of GERD. These two TCM modalities can also be used in conjunction with Western modes of treatment. Usually a combination of TCM and Western medicine along with dietary and lifestyle recommendations is the best approach when addressing GERD.


Dr. Vickery is a licensed acupuncturist in Tarzana, CA., and the founder and clinical director of Vickery Health and Wellness.