There’s a Pill for That

Hand me that Prilosec! If you ever wondered what causes your heartburn, here is the WebMD description of the common wisdom on the subject:

The basic cause of heartburn is a lower esophageal sphincter, or LES, that doesn’t tighten as it should. Two excesses often contribute to this problem: too much food in the stomach (overeating) or too much pressure on the stomach (frequently from obesity, pregnancy, or constipation). Certain foods commonly relax the LES, including tomatoes, citrus fruits, garlic, onions, chocolate, coffee, alcohol, caffeinated products, and peppermint. Meals high in fats and oils (animal or vegetable) often lead to heartburn, as do certain medications. Stress and lack of sleep can increase acid production and can cause heartburn. And smoking, which relaxes the LES and stimulates stomach acid, is a major contributor.

Yes, the old ‘lower esophageal sphincter.’ Let me explain this to you in layman’s terms. There is a valve at the top of your stomach whose main job is to keep the flow of material in the downward direction. This valve is made of the same stuff your other sphincter is, it’s built the same way, the flow control is the same direction. Thinking about the sphincter that your are more familiar with, it is possible to make something go the other way, if you push hard enough, but it doesn’t really take that much pressure to do it. Increasing the pressure on the material in your stomach makes the flow go the other way all of the time on your LES, too. When you drink a carbonated beverage, you immediately get reverse flow of gasses. You burp. So we know what burping is, it’s gas pressure being relieved and it’s usually not a problem.

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What if the source of the pressure was not only something that made gasses in your stomach, but also made the material in your stomach foam? Then when you burped, or the pressure got high enough to make the valve leak, some of the foam would escape and it would not just be gas, but liquid. If the liquid contained an oil, say peppermint, then you would taste this oil. That might lead you to think that the peppermint was the culprit. However, peppermint is not something that would cause gas to be created in your stomach. Whatever is creating the gas is the real culprit, and the peppermint taste is just a symptom of the problem. What could be causing the foaming?

There was a time when I couldn’t eat Pizza without getting the worst heartburn. Spaghetti was something I loved to eat but I would be tasting it for many hours afterwards in my belching and the burning wanted me to swear off the stuff. I always thought the problem was the spices that I could taste when I burped. Taking an antacid medicine would help right away, but it seemed to have the side effect of causing everything else I ate after using it to give me the same symptoms. It was like taking antacid made me keep taking antacid indefinitely. I could only break the cycle by ‘living with’ the heartburn instead of treating the symptom.

A few years back I went on the Atkin’s Diet with a religious fervor. I quit all sugars from any source, and all carbs. I bought the keto-sticks, so that I could see from my urine that my body was metabolizing fats instead of sugars for energy. I did this for six weeks. During the six weeks there were a few times that we had catered lunches at work of Pizza Hut Pizza. What a temptation! Can’t have the pizza, but just because of the bread. Instead of eating pizza like I normally would, I just ate the cheese, meat and vegetable toppings. I just peeled the top off the crust and ate that. Wonder of wonders, no heartburn! After that experience I tried spaghetti sauce with big spicy meatballs and found the same thing, no stomach upset or gas. No need for antacid. I had discovered that the bread was causing the gas!

At work we have a boiler (I work at a power plant) and one of the things about boilers is that they produce steam which bubbles to the top of the liquid it is formed in. It is vitally important when operating a steam power plant that only steam gets to the turbine. If water gets to the turbine, even in the form of tiny droplets, it can damage the delicate steam turbine blades. We call this carryover. Here is a video I found of it. It can happen if your boiler chemistry becomes abnormal, increasing the surface tension of the water, so that the steam coming out of the water forms bubbles that don’t burst, thus ‘carrying over’ in the steam to the turbine. Anything that causes your stomach chemistry to similarly be disrupted can also cause gas formation, foaming and carryover, if the valve at the top of your stomach can’t contain the pressure. Even a small leak will make you uncomfortable, and if it contains something fragrant, like peppermint, you will know where the ‘source’ of the problem is.

Taking an antacid will help because it will stop the formation of the bubbles, change your stomach chemistry, and stop the creation of the gas (for a bit). Taking an antacid does not change the source of the gas. Bacteria in your stomach are consuming the easy sugars in the starches you are eating, making gas as a byproduct of their work. Just like in the rumen of a cow, if it eats corn it will have EXACTLY the same problems, except that the valve at the top of the cow’s stomach is much tighter, and this problem in cattle can actually kill them due to the increased pressure.

Taking antacids has other problems and side effects. I quote at length from this article…

A sodium-based antacid uses sodium bicarbonate to neutralize stomach acid. The sodium used in this type of antacid neutralizes acid quickly but increases blood pressure and should be avoided by people with high blood pressure or a heart condition….

…Calcium-based antacids are safe for use by people with high blood pressure but can have adverse affects for people prone to kidney stones or people that suffer with constipation issues…In large doses or with frequent use, the calcium in the antacids will cause kidney stones or constipation when used regularly over a shorter time span. In extreme cases, the calcium in the antacids will clog the kidneys to the point that blood cannot circulate correctly, which may cause the kidneys to shut down…
…Aluminum-based antacids also cause kidney stones and constipation but have additional side effects that can weaken bones and cause vital nutrients to leave the taker’s body. Unlike antacid types, aluminum-based antacids have shown to be safe for individuals with normal kidney function unless the aluminum-based antacid contains magnesium salts. This combination can cause blood pressure to drop, so people with low blood pressure should avoid this combination in an antacid. All antacid types containing aluminum should be avoided by people suffering from osteoporosis, as the aluminum removes calcium from their bodies.

Side effects from taking a pill, that is itself a reaction to the side effect of eating breads and sugars. There is a pill for the side effects of whatever antacid you are taking, as well, and the cost to you is minimal, if you are on a good insurance plan. Or, you can quit eating sugar and white bread. Perhaps you could just stop eating anything out of a box, bag or bottle. One small change at a time, I suppose.

About dcarmack

I am an instrument technician at the electric utility servicing the Kansas City Missouri metropolitan area. I am in the IBEW, Local 412. I was trained to be a nuclear power plant operator in the USN and served on submarines. I am a Democrat, even more so than those serving in Congress or the White House.
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