Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or acid reflux, is a condition that takes simple heartburn to a whole new level. People with GERD routinely experience burning pain in the lower mid-chest, or behind the breastbone. This signals the upward movement of stomach acid into the esophagus (food tube), where it causes irritation, inflammation, and pain.
People with GERD may also experience difficulty swallowing, or have a dry cough and asthma-like symptoms. On top of being unpleasant, the condition is also risky. Untreated GERD can increase a person’s risk of developing asthma, laryngitis, eroded tooth enamel, and even cancer of the esophagus.
Risk factors for GERD include obesity, diabetes, smoking, alcohol abuse and other conditions. Many of these conditions are reversible through proper diet and lifestyle modifications. Although dietary restrictions are often recommended, there is controversy around specific foods or beverages affecting GERD. Weight loss is more likely to be effective.
Physicians may prescribe over-the-counter (OTC) antacids or prescription medications to reduce stomach acid output. However, these common drugs aren’t without risks or side effects. Some time-honored natural remedies for occasional heartburn include herbs such as peppermint, chamomile, and licorice root, as well as one surprising candidate—melatonin.
Melatonin (the so-called “sleep hormone”) may offer significant relief from GERD when taken with a handful of other supplements, including certain vitamins and amino acids. Melatonin is an antioxidant hormone produced in the pineal gland (also known as the “third eye”) in response to darkness. It helps trigger changes in the brain that promote the onset of sleep. However, melatonin serves other, less well-known functions in the body.
Although we usually think of melatonin as a product of the pineal gland, up to 500 times more melatonin is produced by tissues lining the stomach and small intestine. Even the linings of the mouth and esophagus secrete the hormone. Based on this fact alone, one could suspect that melatonin is an important player in the complex system of signals and feedback loops that control digestion and eating behavior.
Experimental evidence suggests that supplemental melatonin, in combination with some other nutritional supplements, may offer remarkably significant relief from GERD in the long term.
Peppermint, Chamomile, Licorice Root, and Other Herbs
A handful of herbs and botanicals are traditionally used to treat GERD, although there is little clinical evidence to support their effectiveness. Among these are: German chamomile flower (Matricaria chamomilla), peppermint (Mentha piperita), licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), milk thistle (Silybum marianum), and garden angelica (Angelica archangelica).
Evidence suggests that some of these herbs can affect digestive function, but there is little or no convincing evidence that this activity translates into relief from GERD. However, it’s possible that the antioxidant properties of some of these botanicals may exert an anti-inflammatory or analgesic effect on the tissues of the esophagus when reflux occurs. This may help reduce injury to the esophagus or the perception of pain.