Tony Cenicola/The New York Times What alternative remedies belong in your home medicine cabinet?
More than a third of American adults use some form of complementary or alternative medicine, according to a government report. Natural remedies have an obvious appeal, but how do you know which ones to choose and whether the claims are backed by science? In this occasional series, Anahad O’Connor, the New York Times “Really?” columnist, explores the claims and the science behind alternative remedies that you may want to consider for your family medicine cabinet.
The Remedy: Chewing gum.
The Claim: It relieves heartburn.
The Science: It may be hard for most people to think of chewing gum as a remedy for anything other than a case of bad breath. But several studies in recent years have shown that it can in fact help alleviate the symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease, better known to most people as GERD or heartburn.
Chewing on a piece or two of gum, it seems, helps force fluids back into the stomach and flood the esophagus with alkaline saliva, neutralizing acids that cause the characteristic burning sensations.
One independent study demonstrating this, published in 2005 in The Journal of Dental Research, involved 31 patients who were recruited for testing after they showed up at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London with symptoms of heartburn. The scientists conceded that their hypothesis going into the study “was that chewing gum does not have any effect on the clearance of reflux from the distal esophagus.”
Ultimately, they were surprised. On two separate days, they asked subjects to fast for four hours, then fed them a “refluxogenic” lunch that would give just about anyone heartburn: two bars of full-fat cheddar cheese, green salad with two tablespoons of mayonnaise, 15 large chips and half a pint of full-fat milk. On both days, some of the subjects were then randomly selected to chew sugar-free gum for half an hour after the meal.
After monitoring the subjects for two hours after the meals, they found that acid levels were significantly lower when the participants chewed gum. The study was financed by King’s College London School of Medicine and Dentistry.
Another study, this one in 2001, involved 36 people, some of them with diagnosed cases of GERD and others who were healthy controls. The study found that chewing sugarless gum for an hour after a large breakfast reduced acid reflux in both groups for up to three hours, particularly in the heartburn group. The study was carried out by gastroenterologists at Veterans Affairs hospitals in New Mexico and Illinois, and financed by the American Digestive Health Foundation.
The Risks: Frequently chewing sugary gum may damage tooth enamel and increase cavities. But sugar-free varieties containing xylitol — which helps inhibit tooth-eroding bacteria — can have a protective effect.