Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Symptoms and Naturopathic Treatments

To put this in the simplest terms possible, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is basically a backflow problem. It happens when stomach acid flows back through a stomach valve into the tube that connects your stomach to your esophagus. The constant backflow of acid reflux irritates the lining of your esophagus. The cause and symptoms can vary by age, lifestyle and health status. Statistics show one in four Americans suffer with GERD. This article discusses symptoms an naturopathic treatments that you may not be familiar with and the concerns about self medicating without understanding the cause of the the problem.

Common Symptoms of Gstroesophageal Reflux Disease

  • Burning pain in the throat or chest, 
  • Difficulty swallowing, 
  • Belching, 
  • Sour or bad taste in the mouth, 
  • Bloating, 
  • Nausea, 
  • Dental erosion, 
  • Chronic coughing or wheezing. 

What else could it be?

Other ailments can present similar symptoms, which is why it is important to differentiate among different illnesses, including: acute gastritis (inflammation of the stomach,) chronic gastritis and inflammatory bowel disease. You may have asthma and GERD, where one ailment aggravates the other. Accurate treatments are based on accurate diagnoses. Naturopathic doctors are trained and take ample time to help figure out what is going on. They also work collaboratively with other physicians and specialists as needed. 

What causes GERD? 

There is some debate on this, but the theory is that the tissue of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), between the esophagus and the stomach,  becomes lax and does not stay closed. It’s designed to be a one-way trip. When the stomach works up our food with the right mixture of fluids, the slurry is supposed to head down into the small intestine. But if the LES, or doorway, is not secure, the acidic mixture of stomach acid and digestive enzymes from the stomach may go up instead of down. It can impact the lining of the esophagus, which does not have mucus secreting cells to protect it. Hence, the name gastro-esophageal reflux. That acidic slurry can cause pain, irritation, and over time, damage to surrounding cells.

What happens as we age?

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), Symptoms: Talk with Your Naturopathic Doctor about GERD

The LES loosens as we age. We also secrete less stomach acid as we get older. Though it seems paradoxical, sometimes people with GERD actually have low stomach acid, not high. It is a complicated physiology related to neurotransmitters and hormones in addition to another thing that helps the LES close better: acid stimulation! And if the sphincter stays loose or too open, even less acidic food slurry will irritate the lining of the esophagus. So, over time, using medications that reduce acid will not lead to reversal of disease. All the foods GERD sufferers are asked to avoid like chocolate, coffee, tomatoes and more, do not cause GERD, rather they aggravate an already irritated esophagus.

A common medication that causes GERD is steroid medication, which is why often if you are prescribed a steroid for any length of time you will also be given an anti-GERD drug to take.  If you have improper  motility (the process by which your food moves along your digestive tract through an effective series of muscular contractions called peristalsis), you will also be at more risk for GERD. Men are more likely to have complications of GERD than women.

What are common risk factors to developing GERD? 

  • Poor diet 
  • Family history 
  • Eating allergenic or sensitive foods 
  • Changes or increases in abdomen size
  • Hiatal hernia 
  • Pregnancy 
  • Stress 
  • Tight clothing at the mid-section 
  • Smoking 
  • Exposure to environmental toxins
  • Certain medications, especially immune suppressive drugs 

Can GERD cause other troubling symptoms?

Yes! Chronic inflammation in the area can cause scarring, which over time can impact your ability to swallow. GERD can also lead to hoarseness, insomnia, sore throats, bad breath, vocal cord polyps, dental issues, earaches, and a sensation of something in your throat. Inhaling stomach acid can put you at more risk for coughing, asthma and pneumonia. And it is not uncommon for severe GERD to make you feel like you’re having a cardiac event. GERD sufferers are also more likely to develop atrial fibrillation. Untreated GERD that worsens can put you at risk for Barrett’s Esophagus, one of the risk factors for esophageal cancer. Reducing stomach acid will also put you at more risk for developing Small Intestine Bowel Overgrowth (SIBO) In other words, it’s important to treat GERD, especially when it is severe or ongoing.

Do conventional medications for GERD have side-effects?

Medications for GERD are commonly prescribed, yet may have the potential for side effects, especially when used in the long term. Research shows that long-term use of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) may be  associated with B-12 and magnesium deficiencies, diarrhea from Clostridium difficile, acute kidney injury and cognitive decline or dementia. Babies prescribed acid suppressive medications before the age of one, which is surprisingly common, have an increased risk of bone fracture in childhood. Acid reducing medication is also associated with poor semen quality.

What does acid suppression from PPIs and antacids do to the body?

In a number of meta-analyses studies, we find those who use PPIs like Omeprazole (Prilosec), Esomeprazole (Nexium), Lansoprazole (Prevacid), and Pantoprazole (Protonix), are at increased risk for developing COVID-19, and are more likely to develop secondary infections and overall more severe manifestations of COVID-19. The doctors doing the research did not go so far as to call it causal, but they did conclude that since the gut can be a portal of entry for COVID-19, acidic gastric pH may impair the virus’s infectivity, thus by reducing stomach acid,  you are taking away one of your best defences against falling sick with the virus.

Having less acid in the stomach allows bacterial overgrowth to take place, and that bacterial metabolism of dietary nitrites can lead to cancer-causing agents. This kind of complication takes place with any antacid treatment. In late 2019, the pharmaceutical world was shaken up when studies revealed that another popular antacid, Zantac, had a tendency to break down into a cancer-causing agent. Over 15 million prescriptions are written each year for babies, children, and adults, and many more people find Zantac over the counter.

Medication side effects are dose-dependent

It’s also important to note that discontinuing medication can lead to rebound reflux and is best done, when possible, over time, and with guidance from a licensed provider. For some people these medications are essential, but lowered doses might also provide adequate relief alongside many of the naturopathic medicine suggestions below. Remember, many side-effects of drugs are dose-dependent, so work with your provider to see if you might be able to lower your dose. In certain cases, it will be nearly impossible to come off these meds. But for others, these medications are taken for only mild symptoms or the underlying pathology is still quite modifiable or reversible.

Natural medicine approaches to GERD

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Treat the Whole Person

Your ND will create an individualized treatment plan for you by taking into account your GERD symptoms while understanding those symptoms in the context of your overall health. Visit with your naturopathic doctor to help find a definitive diagnosis. Learn lifestyle and natural medicine approaches to reduce GERD symptoms and reverse the tendency for GERD.

Look for the underlying cause 

NDs aim to address underlying reasons for why you developed GERD in the first place. Naturopathic therapies work toward correcting foundational anatomic and physiologic problems that lead to or sustain ongoing GERD. Naturopathic philosophy and the approaches used by NDs rely on the patient’s inherent healing capacity and on the importance of patient education. Doctors trained in naturopathic medicine lean into techniques that carry low to no side effect profiles, and follow all doctors’ pledge to Do No Harm

Naturopathic treatments are geared toward: 

  • reducing inciting causes 
  • strengthening the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) 
  • correcting acid imbalance 
  • healing irritated mucosal membranes
  • rebuilding healthy tissue in the area. 

Lifestyle recommendations for GERD

After a careful assessment, an ND will make a number of recommendations for GERD, including lifestyle changes such as changes to diet, improving stress management, and adding dietary supplements, botanicals, and even acupuncture, as needed. 

Eating an anti-inflammatory diet has many health benefits, and is also an important first step for those with GERD. This diet helps counter the negative impact of inflammation throughout the body. Many patients find oatmeal soothing. Adding fermented and cultured foods to the diet helps build a robust and diverse microbiome that can aid in decreasing inflammation.

Some food items like chocolate, peppermint, coffee, carbonated drinks, and alcohol have the impact of reducing the LES tone and may exacerbate GERD for some people. Eating a very large meal in the evening, right before going to bed will also aggravate GERD. If your GERD is aggravated by slower motility, consider chewing gum after your meals as a way to encourage more digestive enzymes and help speed up motility.

Can stress impact GERD?

Take a good look at the stressors in your life, and see where change might be possible. Stress is a known trigger for GERD and helping reduce overall stress is one important component of treatment. Exercise, mindfulness meditation, hobbies, time with loved ones, time in nature, all raise our threshold for feeling stress and help with stress management. Too much stress leads to burnout, which impacts your overall health. Mind-body medicines including meditation and breathing exercises show promise as natural therapies without any side-effects.

Will an ND prescribe nutritional supplements and botanicals for GERD

Melatonin has been shown to reduce GERD symptoms. Taken at night, it also helps with sleep which many people need. It also helps reduce the perception of discomfort. Melatonin impacts stomach acid secretion as well as helping to make the LES work more effectively. Glutamine, an amino acid, or building block of protein, helps heal an irritated stomach/esophagus. A probiotic helps to build the number and variety of healthy bacteria in the gut, which helps reduce inflammation. 

There are a number of botanical medicines that have been used for generations to help treat GERD. Many are now being studied with positive results that underscore efficacy and safety, They work to soothe and rebuild the lining of the mucous membrane of the esophagus including: slippery elm (Ulmus fulva), potable aloe vera juice and licorice root (Glycerizza glabra) in the form of DGL. Alginates, derived from seaweed, are also part of the naturopathic medicine approach to GERD, as research on alginates shows great promise. Dosing and frequency of supplements and botanicals are individualized to the patient, based on presenting symptoms, information from diagnostic procedures, weight, diet, cultural preferences, and other lifestyle factors.

GERD as a reversible diagnosis

Many patients ask, “Will I have to stay on medication forever?” Over time, and as symptoms improve with the proper information, lifestyle changes, and the application of a number of natural medicines, many patients are able to reduce or discontinue conventional GERD medication. Naturopathic doctors follow the Therapeutic Order, focusing on natural, less invasive therapies without strong side effects. That said, NDs are trained in the use of prescription medication and can help with deprescribing when indicated.

Depending on the severity of the GERD and the patient’s capacity to sustain lifestyle changes, Naturopathic medicine approaches offer the chance to reverse the tendency for GERD, to the point that taking nutritional or botanical supplements is no longer needed. Many NDs have former GERD patients in their practices who no longer suffer with GERD. Or perhaps they keep a tin of slippery elm lozenges handy, to use for occasional GERD, after dietary or alcohol indiscretion. This is a pathology that for many people is reversible.

Find an ND for your health care team

Working with a licensed naturopathic doctor to help you create an effective, gentle treatment for your GERD makes good sense. Working to limit pharmaceutical exposure in this realm, especially because of the long list of side effects, is worth your time and effort. To find a naturopathic doctor near you, see the Institute for Natural Medicine’s Find an ND Directory. 

For more on GERD and gastric reflux:

The Heartburn of GERD: A Naturopathic Approach to Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

How do Naturopathic Doctors Diagnose and Treat Digestive Disorders?

This article is provided by the Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, partnered with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of naturopathic medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing health care systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following  initiatives:

  • Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of naturopathic medicine
  • Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
  • Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine

Dr. Rothenberg is a contributor to INM and practicing licensed naturopathic doctor in Northampton, Massachusetts. Dr. Rothenberg is the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians 2017 Physician of the Year. Dr. Rothenberg's writing can be found on, Better Nutrition's Naturopathic Health Hub, Medium, Thrive Global, and The Huff Post. She is the proud mother of 3 adult children.

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Deb Hubers

Debra Hubers is a serial entrepreneur and has started seven businesses; ranging from an advanced genomics to an employer health care purchasing cooperative. Deb has over 35 years of experience in healthcare finance, education, technology, and pharmacogenomics.

Ms. Hubers has dedicated her career to measuring and improving healthcare outcomes. Her expertise is leveraging technology to deliver personalized, preventative medicine. Ms. Hubers co-founded La Vita Compounding Pharmacy in 2007. Collaborating with her business partner, physicians and strategic partners, Deb has grown La Vita to be one of the most respected and sought-after personalized medicine providers on the west coast. She is also Co-Founder of EpigeneticsRx, a leading provider of precise, personalized, prevention which positively impacts genetic expression.

Alex Keller, ND

Dr. Alex Keller, ND, AFMCP is a graduate of the University of Ottawa with an Honours Bachelor in Health Sciences and Psychology. Although originally intending to attend conventional medical school, following a three-month volunteer internship at a rural Kenyan hospital where he observed how doctors used local food to treat patients, he shifted his career goals and pursued a degree in naturopathic medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.

After one year of practicing with the esteemed Dr. Chris Pickrell, ND, RH in a community acupuncture setting, in 2015 he and his wife Dr. Jenn Keller, ND moved to rural Ottawa, Canada where they started an organic farm and retreat center. In the same year, Alex and his athletic therapist sister Jess Keller combined their practices to form Keller Active Health, an integrative physical therapy clinic.

Ever curious and passionate about the education of evidence-based natural medicine, in 2017, Dr. Keller joined a fledgling Ottawa-based health tech startup named Fullscript. He serves as its Medical Director and oversees the development of medical education content for practitioners across North America.

Prior to medicine, Alex worked in the renewable energy sector, where he developed a deep passion for sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship. This connection between medicine and agriculture now drives Alex to focus much of his energy on bringing awareness to the quality and sourcing standards in the supplement and organic agriculture supply chains.

Today, he splits his professional time practicing as a clinician, working for Fullscript, and expanding the farming operation while chasing his kids with Jenn and occasionally running ultra-marathon trail races. He is also currently completing an Executive MBA through the Quantic School of Business & Technology with a focus on supply chain innovation.

Pamela Snider, ND

Pamela Snider, ND, is Executive and Senior Editor for the Foundations of Naturopathic Medicine Project, producing a first of its kind international textbook of Naturopathic medicine through a series of international retreats and symposia. A nationally recognized integrative health and policy leader, she is active in both national and regional integrative health initiatives. Dr. Snider serves on the Board of Directors, was founding Executive Director and co-founder of the Academic Consortium for Integrative Health (ACIH/ACCAHCa consortium of the councils of schools, accrediting agencies and certifying bodies of the licensed, traditional and emerging integrative health professions, and is currently Vice Chair and co-founder of the Integrative Health Policy Consortium (IHPC).  Dr. Snider served as a founding Board Member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine from 2014-2016. Her public policy work includes completing a two year appointment to the DHHS Center For Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) Medicare Coverage Advisory Committee (MCAC); serving as a Steering Committee Member for  the HRSA funded American College of Preventive Medicine NCCIM Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Residency program, co-directing in USPHS Region X the Building Bridges Between Provider Communities Group, an exploration of interdisciplinary collaboration and common ground between public health and CAM; serving for 22 years on Washington State’s Health Professional Loan Repayment and Scholarship Program Advisory Committee (HPLRSP); providing technical assistance to and developing key language for the enabling legislation for NIH Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCIH/NCCAM); and staffing Joseph Pizzorno ND during his appointment as Commissioner on the White House Commission on CAM Policy.

From 1994-2003, Dr. Snider served as Associate Dean for Public and Professional Affairs and Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, dividing her work between academic and public affairs activities, including chairing the Naturopathic Medicine Program Curriculum Review Committee.  Dr. Snider has been teaching, publishing and lecturing widely on Naturopathic philosophy, theory integrative health, public policy, and other topics for over 30 years. Currently, an Associate Professor at National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) in Portland, OR, Dr. Snider also continues at Bastyr University in her 22nd year as a faculty member teaching naturopathic medicine history, clinical theory, and global context. Among her Naturopathic medicine professional roles she serves on the Institute for Natural Medicine’s Leadership Council.  In 1989, she co-led the naturopathic profession with Dr. Jared Zeff, in developing a unifying definition of naturopathic medicine and its principles of practice adopted unanimously by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) House of Delegates. She was a co-investigator in the 2004 NIH NCCAM research study, the North American Naturopathic Medical Research Agenda and CAM Advisor in NIHCCAM’s Financing Integrative Health Care (University of Washington).  Her areas of experience include healthcare education; naturopathic and interdisciplinary clinical theory, curriculum development; clinical practice; government and legislative affairs, public policy, interdisciplinary collaboration, and community organizing.  Dr. Snider has received the Ontario Naturopathic Physician of the Year Award, the Physician of the Year Award from the AANP, the President’s Outstanding Vision Award and Distinguished Alumnus Award at Bastyr University, AANP’s President’s Award, an honorary Doctorate of Naturopathic Philosophy from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), the William A Mitchell Vis Award from the AANP and The Gathering – NMSA’s Beacon Award. She received her ND degree in 1982 from Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences and is a licensed naturopathic physician in the State of Washington. She lives with her husband and children at their homestead in North Bend Washington, in the beautiful mountain to sea landscape and home of The Revival – Restore the Vis, an annual student-led community gathering.

Susan Haeger

Susan Haeger is Founder/Principal of Transformative Health Solutions Inc. She has applied her twenty plus years in executive leadership to help shape and drive adoption of progressive health policy for whole person healthcare. She was a section contributor to the 2021 INM/AANP published professional white paper, Naturopathic Physicians as Whole Health Specialists: The Future is Whole Person Health Care that provides supporting evidence for the profession’s significant and unique contributions to preventive, whole person care and models of integrative clinical practice.

Bruce Barlean

Bruce Barlean is an owner and founder of Barlean’s, a global dietary supplement manufacturer located in the Pacific Northwest in Ferndale, WA. Bruce has been actively involved in the Natural Products industry since 1989 and is passionate about making a difference in the world and positively impacting the lives of others.

Bruce believes that people can make a difference in the world through ordinary purchases. He is committed to improving the quality of life for every person on the planet by making the best products and by using the profits to support outreach programs. Bruce summarizes it simply, “We make good stuff to do good stuff”.

In the late 1980’s Bruce became passionate about how health could be dramatically improved with Flax Oil Supplementation. Bruce along with his entrepreneurial parents saw the potential to improve the lives of many people and in 1989 they began selling Flax Oil under the Barlean’s name. From 1989 – 2000 the business grew an average of 40% year over year. While most companies saw a decline in business in the 2001 recession, Barlean’s continued to grow and soon became America’s #1 selling flaxseed oil and continues to be to the present. The brand has since expanded to include additional oils, green food concentrates and other premium supplements. Bruce continues to drive innovation and over the years his products and company have won countless awards including: Eight consecutive Vity Awards for #1 EFA, Six consecutive Vity Awards for #1 Greens Food Supplement, Natural Choice Award for Best Specialty Supplement, Best Product of the Year, Best New Product, Gold Medal Taster’s Choice Award, Gold Medal American Masters of Taste Award, #1 Health Food Store Brand for Consumer Satisfaction by Consumer Lab, and Manufacturer of the Year.

In 2013 as the company was on the eve of celebrating the 25th year in business Bruce and his parents decided to take their desire to help people to a new level that they call Pathway to a Better Life – which is now seen in the Barlean’s logo. Bruce and his parents had always been generous in their giving and support of charities, but as part of the Pathway to a Better Life they decided to increased partnership with charitable organizations such as: Vitamin Angels, Compassion International, KidsTown International, Autism Hope Alliance, Engedi Refuge, Project 92, and others. And because so many people are unable to meet basic nutritional needs, Bruce created a comprehensive Omega-3 and multivitamin formula that he distributes free-of-charge to local food banks. In addition, Bruce decided the company would supply food banks with organic coconut oil to provide people with a health alternative to standard cooking oils.

Always generous with his time Bruce has served as a youth leader for his local church for several years and continues to mentor youth. He has been on several not for profit boards including; Whatcom County Pregnancy Center (2003-2006), Natural Products Association (dates?), and the Institute for Natural Medicine Leadership Council (presently).

The Barlean family have been avid supporters of Bastyr University since the 1990’s and in 2013 were given Bastyr’s most prestigious honor, the Mission Award, which recognizes their leadership over time in improving the health and well-being of the human community.

Bruce currently resides in Ferndale, WA with his wife Lisa and their two dogs: Heinz & Shadow. When he’s not helping others he can be found fishing (catch & release).

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Michelle Simon

Michelle Simon, PHD, ND

President & CEO

As president and CEO of INM, Dr. Simon brings her passion for working with organizations dedicated to improving the quality and delivery of healthcare. This desire stems from her years of practice as a licensed naturopathic physician. In addition to holding a Naturopathic Doctorate from Bastyr University she also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She has served on boards for the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), the Naturopathic Physicians Research Institute (NPRI), and several advisory boards. Dr. Simon served nine years on the Washington State Health Technology Clinical Committee, as Ambassador to the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) and was recognized as 2018 AANP Physician of the Year. Dr. Simon shares with her husband a passion for adventure travel, preferably by boat or motorcycle. She also enjoys teaching a women’s off-road motorcycling class.