There are a handful of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments to help control acid reflux disease and its symptoms. Some of the most common CAM options for acid reflux disease are alginates, breathing exercises and melatonin. Other strategies are sometimes used, but no well-conducted studies have confirmed effectiveness for acid reflux disease.
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One take-home message when considering the use of any CAM treatment is to remember that you should always discuss them with your doctor. Just because a treatment is labeled as complementary or alternative does not mean that it is safe and appropriate for everyone.
Alginates are substances obtained from the cell walls of algae. They are sold as quick-acting antacids, such as the combination of sodium alginate and potassium bicarbonate (Gaviscon Advance), and have several properties that make them useful for treating GERD symptoms. Alginate preparations form a foam-like “raft” that sits on top of the stomach contents, neutralizing the stomach contents and forming a physical barrier of sorts. They also bind to pepsin and bile acids, reducing the inflammation that can be caused by these substances if they are refluxed into the esophagus or throat.
Alginate preparations are more effective against GERD symptoms than placebos, and in a study reported in the February 2012 issue of BMC Gastroenterology, Gaviscon Advance was equally as effective as the acid-reducing medication omeprazole. Used as a complementary medicine, alginates added to omeprazole increased the number of people with complete GERD symptom resolution in a study reported in the July 2012 issue of Diseases of the Esophagus.
Breathing exercises that focus on abdominal instead of chest breathing have been suggested for the treatment of acid reflux disease. These exercises are designed to tighten the muscles in the diaphragm that surround the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) with the goal of improving the ability of this sphincter to prevent reflux. A study in the March 2012 issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology showed that these exercises improved GERD symptoms and decreased dependence on medications. However, it is important to note that the researchers restricted their study to individuals who had only moderate GERD, as they felt that severe disease would probably not be improved by this approach.
Melatonin is most commonly known as a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain, where it functions to regulate sleep. But melatonin is also made by cells in the esophagus, stomach and intestines. It inhibits stomach acid and pepsin secretion and tightens the LES, thereby preventing the reflux of gastric contents.
Only a few studies have been conducted in humans to evaluate whether melatonin is effective for treating GERD. In a small study of 36 adults reported in the January 2010 issue of BMC Gastroenterology, melatonin was shown to relieve GERD symptoms at least as well as omeprazole. It also had fewer side effects than omeprazole. So even though there have been few human trials, the results of current research are quite encouraging. As one can imagine, sedation is a common side effect, given that melatonin is a natural sleep-inducing agent. Melatonin may therefore be most appropriate for people who have GERD symptoms at night.