Like each and every one of us, the stomach isn't perfect: it trips up from time to time, it stumbles! When this happens it allows gastric acid to reach places that are not equipped to handle it, and it burns! Reflux is the regurgitation of gastric acid and digestive enzymes into the pharyngeal area. When heartburn occurs, those juices come into contact with the end of the oesophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest. It’s all dictated by our nerves - after all, they control our muscles! If the nerves in our digestive system receive incorrect information, they struggle to keep our gastric juices where they belong and they start to travel in the wrong direction.
The gateway between the oesophagus and the stomach is an area that is particularly susceptible and sensitive. Despite precautionary measures that include a narrow oesophagus, a stable position in the diaphragm, and the curve at the entrance to the stomach, things sometimes don't quite go according to plan! Surprise, surprise, it all comes back to our nerves! Here two different nervous systems have to work together in the oesophagus and stomach area - the nervous system of the brain, and that of the gut. For instance, the sphincter muscle between the oesophagus and the stomach is under control of nerves from the brain. The brain also influences gastric acid production. The nerves of the digestive system ensure that the oesophagus moves things downwards, keeping it squeaky clean with the thousand or so times we swallow saliva in a day.
The avoidance of foods that can reduce the strength of the sphincter that seals the stomach off from the oesophagus, such as chili and other hot spices, chocolate, alcohol, sugar, coffee and so on, is often suggested. All of these substances do impact our nerves but each to varying degrees; and some of us can cope with them a little better than others and won’t experience reflux! The lucky ones!
Neutralising stomach acid with antacids will remedy the issue in the short term but may be detrimental in the long term. Stomach acid is useful for combating the harmful effects of allergens, bacteria and parasites from our food and is vital for digesting proteins. Every process and structure in the body is there for a reason - a very good reason - and stomach acid is no different!