Acid Reflux and Chinese Medicine

Chinese Medicine Effectively Treats Acid Reflux

We all have occasional indigestion but when it becomes a daily or weekly occurrence, it needs to be addressed due to its harmful impact on our overall health.   In Chinese medicine, strong digestive health provides the foundation for good health throughout our lifetime.  When our digestive system is healthy, it processes food in a timely fashion, extracting the nutrients we need and eliminating the waste products.

Acid reflux, the common name for GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) afflicts more than 15 million Americans on a daily basis. When stomach acid flows up into the esophagus, it causes discomfort, heartburn, inflammation, and over time, cellular changes known as Barrett’s esophagus.   Some cases of Barrett’s esophagus progress to esophageal cancer.

Western Medical Approaches

Conventional Western medicine treats acid reflux with antacids such as Tums, proton pump inhibitors like Prilosec, or H2-receptor antagonists such as Tagamet.   While these can be helpful in the short-term, they are not a long-term solution for most people because they treat the symptoms of acid reflux, but do nothing address what is causing  the acid reflux.  Long term use of over-the-counter and prescribed antacid medicine impacts the entire body.

Chinese Medical Approaches

In Chinese medicine, acid reflux is called reversal of stomach qi (pronounced chee) because normal stomach qi should move down, not up.    It is treated by determining and treating the root cause of the acid reflux as well as treating the immediate symptoms.   Reversal of stomach qi occurs because the valve (known medically as the LES or lower esophageal sphincter) between the esophagus and the stomach doesn’t close properly.   This valve opens and closes when we swallow to allow food to pass into the stomach.  When the pressure from the stomach is greater than the pressure above the valve, stomach acid and food splash back up through the valve causing a burning sensation and damaging the tender tissue of the esophagus.

Some symptoms of acid reflux:

*    heartburn

*    acid or bitter taste in your mouth

*    difficulty swallowing

*    chronic bad breath

*    chronic barking cough

*    laryngitis

*    nausea and belching

Common Causes of Acid Reflux

Eating the Wrong Foods:  What we eat profoundly affects our digestion.  Too many high fat foods, dairy products, red meats, alcohol and sugar, in short the traditional American diet, do not support healthy digestion.  The bloating and gas that occur cause the pressure in the stomach to be greater than that outside which allows the contents of the stomach to be pushed back up into the esophagus.

Low Stomach Acid (hypochlorhydria):  While it may be counter intuitive, a very common cause of acid reflux is not enough stomach acid. There can be many reasons a person does not have the proper amount of stomach acid including anemia, B12 deficiency, and some autoimmune disorders.  A very common cause of low stomach acid is age.  As we age the cells in the stomach that secrete the acid don’t work as well.  This problem can be easily addressed with nutritional supplements.

Stress and Emotional Upset: Poorly managed and chronic stress keep high levels of the hormone cortisol circulating in the blood stream.  One reason that excess cortisol is unhealthy is that it shuts down the digestive system as the body puts its energy into supplying blood and energy to the heart and lungs.

Hiatal Hernia:  The esophagus passes through the diaphragm at the bottom of the rib cage and connects to the stomach.  A hiatal hernia occurs when the top of the stomach rolls or slides up into the diaphragm.  When this occurs, the valve that opens and closes to allow our food to pass into the stomach doesn’t close properly.   This common condition is treatable in most people and can be prevented from reoccurring with lifestyle changes.

Food Allergies:   Being allergic or intolerant to certain foods, (the most common being wheat and dairy) means that stomach acid doesn’t break down food properly.  The resulting inflammation, gas and bloating that occur can cause the pressure in the stomach to be greater than that outside allowing the contents of the stomach to be pushed back up into the esophagus.

Excess Stomach Weight: Extra weight increases pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), causing it to remain partially open, which means that the contents of the stomach splashe up into the esophagus.

Pregnancy:   As the fetus grows,  the expanding womb can push up on our digestive organs, putting added pressure on the LES and forcing the pressure gradient to shift and allow stomach contents into the esophagus.

Smoking and Excessive Alcohol:  Smoking and drinking alcohol have greatly affect the digestive system.  Both cigarettes and alcohol affect the pressure of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).

Nine Things You Can Do To Reduce and Cure Acid Reflux

*    Eat smaller and more frequent meals since overeating pushes the stomach upward.

*    Don’t eat late at night.  Allow 3 hours between your last meal and going to bed.

*    Reduce and manage stress.  One of the best ways to do this is to find an activity such as Qi Gong or Yoga that allows you to relax. Acupuncture clears stress from the body and rebalances the nervous system.

*    Eat mostly foods that promote health like fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts, foods that support the body rather than tear it down, such as sugar and alcohol.

*    If you have a history of hiatal hernia, eat your largest meal at lunch and a lighter meal for dinner. This is actually a good idea for us all.

*    Avoid squatting and other activities that cause abdominal compression

*    Avoid tight restrictive clothing,

*    Normalize weight.  If weight is an issue, I can help you find the lifestyle changes that work for you.

*    If symptoms occur at night put 3-5″ blocks under the front of the bed to elevate it.


Chinese medicine has been an effective treatment for acid reflux for many people, but there are no magic bullets. As with most conditions, it doesn’t occur over night and requires that we work together to find a plan that works for your lifestyle. The good news is that it is usually responds very well to treatment with acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary and lifestyle changes.  In my experience, once the digestive system begins to improve, all other bodily systems improve also.

Please call Cynthia at Singing Crane Acupuncture with any questions or for further information at 503-233-2549.