Treating heartburn with a ‘more is less’ approach


Nova Scotian pharmacist says stomach acid may be the cure, not the problem

     That antacid you’re taking for heartburn might provide you with short-term relief but it’s likely going to mean more suffering down the road, says a Nova Scotian pharmacist who focuses on pharmaceutical compounding and nutraceuticals.


Graham MacKenzie, owner of Stone’s Pharmasave in Baddeck, says it’s a popular misconception that gastroesophageal reflux disease – commonly known as heartburn – is caused by an excess of acid in the stomach that overflows into the esophagus. Rather, the opposite may be true, meaning  that the real cure for heartburn is more stomach acid, not less.


“People are often shocked when I explain what may be the cause of their heartburn and how it should be treated,” says MacKenzie. “We’ve been led to believe that it’s caused by an excess of stomach acid. But that’s a bit like thinking bleeding is caused by excess blood. You bleed because you have an opening in your circulatory system. It’s the same with heartburn: you feel pain because stomach acid is entering an opening in your lower esophagus. That may be due to not having enough stomach acid to keep your lower esophagus sphincter closed and, as a result, the acid you do have is able to get into your esophagus and give you heartburn.”


While antacids might offer temporary relief, MacKenzie says they’re only exacerbating the situation by not treating the root cause. In fact, prolonged antacid use can lead to increases in inflammation, poor digestion and increased fat tissue. Instead, he recommends nutraceuticals that increase stomach acid and encourage the lower esophageal sphincter to naturally close.


MacKenzie’s approach to heartburn treatment is one supported by a wide range of research, as well as naturopathic doctors and naturopaths. Among them is Dr. Natasha Turner, North America’s leading naturopathic doctor, best-selling author and founder of the Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique in Toronto. She echoes MacKenzie’s recommendations, especially in older Canadians.


“Unfortunately, people with reduced acid levels frequently suffer from what they assume are symptoms of elevated stomach acid, including heartburn, bloating, nausea and frequent burping,” says Dr. Turner. “As a result, they reach for over-the-counter acid-reducing remedies, which can actually encourage greater imbalance and increase the risk of developing peptic or duodenal ulcers and even pancreatic or gastric cancer. Believe it or not, excess acidity in the stomach is much less common and, in my experience, is usually not the cause of the digestive discomfort.”


Dr. Turner recommends heartburn sufferers consider all options for treating low acidity, including the testing of hydrochloric acid levels. Natural solutions can often effectively reduce the symptoms of heartburn, indigestion or reflux without the risk of further decreasing stomach acid. However, it’s important to do so only after consulting with a health professional, such as a doctor or pharmacist, who can also prescribe the appropriate treatment.


Among the options to consider are several suggested by Dr. Andrea Maxim, a naturopathic doctor based in Hamilton, Ontario. She recommends Betaine HCl capsules with each meal to increase the acid content in the stomach and retrain the stomach to secrete acid at the right time.  This helps to initiate digestion and protect the gastro-intestinal tract against foreign pathogens.


“When we tell people that we are treating their reflux the exact opposite way they were treating it, it can cause confusion,” says Dr. Maxim. “If they come off of their medications cold turkey, they will often get rebound heartburn. Treatment involves slow removal of the medications with support of Betaine HCl, pepsin, some digestive enzymes and probiotics. In the end, they will be successfully off of their acid lowering medications and digesting their food completely offering long lasting health.”


Regardless of the path taken to overcoming heartburn, MacKenzie always recommends consulting your doctor or pharmacist before discontinuing your current treatment or medication.


“The most important part of the treatment is the first one: talking to us,” he says. “That will allow us to fully understand your needs and make an informed decision. Then we can work together to provide a cure for your heartburn that will actually benefit you in the long run.”


About Stone’s Pharmasave

Stone’s Drug Store has been serving the community of Baddeck, Nova Scotia for over 60 years. In 2001, it was purchased by Graham MacKenzie, who renovated the pharmacy both inside and out. Today, Stone’s Pharmasave includes Cape Breton’s only compounding lab, a private counselling room and nursing home dispensing facilities. Its team of six pharmacists, a certified dispenser, four pharmacy technicians 15 store employees also provide several services not found in other Nova Scotian drugstores, including hormone replacement therapy and specialized pain management therapy. More information about Stone’s Pharmasave, including health news updates and Graham’s blog, can be found at


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