Dannon yogurt container with a background of flowing lava

It seems bizarre to me the way that acid reflux disease (a.k.a. gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) has seemingly come out of nowhere to afflict so many people — and that its sufferers so readily gulp the array of remedies concocted by the pharmaceutical industry to cure it. Sure, a purple pill may be necessary in many cases, but prescription drugs can be expensive, and at least one study has found that use of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) may lead to dependency.

Wouldn’t it make sense to seek a more natural solution first?

For example, since acid reflux symptoms are so often associated with certain types of foods — fried foods, fatty foods, acids — shouldn’t you perhaps try to reduce those items in your diet, or at least enjoy them at lunch instead of dinner?

You know, go ahead and have that bucket of fried chicken and a bottle of red wine, but do it at noon. That way, your digestive system has a good 10 hours to work on the stuff before you get horizontal and gravity allows the stomach acid to gush up your throat like a lava flow from Kilauea.

Despite all the TV commercials, acid reflux is apparently not as new a condition as it may seem. During an episode of Discover Wisconsin this summer, the bed at Janesville’s Lincoln Tallman House, where Abraham Lincoln spent two nights in 1859, was noted as clearly too short for the 6-foot, 4-inch candidate. A curator explained that people of Lincoln’s time typically slept propped up on pillows, for fear of choking to death if they slumbered horizontally.

That sure sounds like GERD-related anxiety to me.

Back in the days before the term “acid reflux disease” was coined, people simply got “heartburn”, and they had simple home remedies to take care of it. On TV’s All in the Family, Archie Bunker routinely downed a “bicarb” — a solution of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) in a glass of water — when he felt the symptoms of indigestion.

Baking soda may be an effective antacid, but it can make you feel like a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke with some Mentos tossed in. Instinct tells you that this is not an experiment you want to perform inside your digestive system on a nightly basis.

(Update: Bicarbonate of soda can be dangerous. When Mary Roach, author of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air, she told Terry Gross that taking baking soda can cause too much pressure to build up in the stomach, “And in the very, very, very rare cases of stomach rupture, it’s frequently bicarbonate of soda that’s been the culprit, not the food itself.”)

The pharmaceutical industry’s early refinement to the baking soda remedy was to add a little aspirin to the mix, making the drink a legitimate medicine. The adorable Speedy Alka-Seltzer character sold us on its effervescence with a catchy jingle: “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz — oh what a relief it is!”

But indigestion can be a serious health problem. Your esophagus is really not meant to handle caustic stomach acids, and acid reflux disease is one of the known risk factors for esophageal cancer. Nevertheless, the fact that we often bring this potentially deadly condition upon ourselves was turned into an award-winning catchphrase of great amusement: “I can’t believe I ate that whole thing.”

In fact, nearly all advertising for antacids acknowledges that overindulging in unhealthy food can be a contributing factor. But at the same time, the heartburn sufferer is depicted as a helpless victim. The poor guy innocently inhales an extra-large pepperoni pizza with double cheese, and somehow acid reflux magically finds out where he lives. Oh, well — medicine to the rescue again!

There has to be a better approach.

First of all, I have been trying to identify and eliminate acid reflux foods from my diet as much as possible. For example, I do love fried chicken, but rotisserie chicken has mostly taken its place these days. I have also noticed that one particular brand of tomato sauce seems to affect me, so I avoid it.

Secondly, I have been searching for foods which might naturally counteract excess stomach acid, without a Mentos eruption or a dependence on expensive prescription drugs.

Let me point out right here that I have absolutely no medical or nutritional training whatsoever. I am not recommending anything to anyone else. I am merely relating my own personal experience. Consult your physician before taking any course of action.

(Update: An August 13, 2012 NPR story — “Got Heartburn? Maybe You Should Rethink Your Drink” — quotes Dr. Karthik Ravi, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic, as saying ” it doesn’t really matter what you eat … because you’re really refluxing acid that your stomach itself is making.” In the article, another gastroenterologist explains how drinking alcohol can over-relax a muscle needed to keep acid down.)

Anyway, in searching the Web for natural acid reflux remedies, I noticed that low-fat yogurt came up fairly frequently.

I have enjoyed yogurt (or, as Wikipdia calls it, “yoghurt“) for years — but generally for breakfast or lunch, never after dinner.

So I gave it a try several times. Lo and behold, a bowl of yogurt an hour or so before bed does seem to significantly reduce overnight acid reflux symptoms for me. Plus, yogurt is a good source of calcium, as well as acidophilus bacteria, which are said to be beneficial for the digestive system. One study has even found that yogurt helps fight the stomach ulcer bug Helicobacter pylori.

I’m not sure why a Midwestern teenager would be impressed by centenarians in the Caucasus, but Dannon yogurt made me a fan with their famous Soviet Georgia commercials of the 1970s. Gimme plain — I’ll add my own honey or fruit. Amy, on the other hand, prefers Yoplait Light, in flavors like Creamy Strawberry.

In addition to buying it at the supermarket, there is also the option of making your own homemade yogurt using starters like Euro Cuisine Yogurt Starter or Yogourmet yogurt starter. We tried something like that once years ago, but it involved a lot of stainless steel pots and keeping fermenting dairy products warm for hours — not the sort of process we regularly have the ambition for.

For those who do have the ambition, Alton Brown did a whole Good Eats episode on yogurt-making called “Good Milk Gone Bad“.

Now, though, I am starting to worry about my lack of ambition: Is it Low T?

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