Stuffed olives may hold key to beating heartburn misery

This interesting article from the Daily Mail claims that a cure cure for heartburn and acid reflux may soon be on the way. I hope so because I flipping well love olives!


A compound used to make stuffed olives could be a treatment for an extreme form of acid reflux. Sodium alginate, which occurs naturally in brown algae, is commonly used to ‘glue’ pimento strips into olives. It is already used to combat heartburn, and scientists have discovered it also appears to stop acid and other stomach contents escaping up into the throat and nose — the symptoms of a type of acid reflux known as laryngopharyngeal, or ‘silent’ reflux.

A trial at Southampton University involving 1,500 patients will compare the effects of sodium alginate to proton pump inhibitor drugs, which are the standard treatment for acid reflux. Silent reflux is a relatively newly recognised condition — it occurs as a result of the backflow of stomach contents, including partially digested food, stomach juices and acids, up into the throat.

This back-flow is meant to be prevented by muscles and valves at the top and bottom of the oesophagus, or gullet. When the valve at the bottom of the gullet is not working properly, stomach acids flow into it, irritating the lining and causing pain associated with heartburn. This form of reflux is known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, and experts estimate that at least one in five people will have one episode of it a week.

In some people, the muscle at the top of the gullet stops working properly and stomach acid flows into the throat, voicebox and nasal chambers. Laryngopharyngeal reflux is found in one in ten people with heartburn, though experts say this number may be much higher. The throat and voicebox have much more sensitive linings than the gullet, so a tiny amount of acid can cause irritation.

Laryngopharyngeal reflux is found in one in ten people with heartburn

This results in a range of symptoms including a sensation of a lump in the throat, a chronic cough, excessive throat clearing, voice changes and problems swallowing. The disorder is known as silent reflux because half of people with it do not have heartburn, probably because the acids pass through and exit via the upper valve so quickly that they don’t have time to irritate the much tougher lining of the oesophagus. Nevertheless, it is thought the condition may increase the risk of some types of oesophageal cancer.

Medications for silent reflux include antacids, which neutralise acid from the stomach, and proton pump inhibitors, which reduce the amount of acid. Researchers involved in the trial at Southampton hope sodium alginate will provide another treatment. This carbohydrate is widely used in the food industry for its thickening and gel-forming abilities. Sodium alginate is thought to work by floating on the surface of the stomach contents, preventing or reducing any back flow.

Though some heartburn treatments use this compound, it has never before been trialled for silent reflux. Trial patients will be split  into groups before they receive   a proton-pump-inhibitor, a placebo or sodium alginate.  Researchers will carry out a number of tests and examinations, including the effects on the voicebox (larynx) and a tissue biopsy before and after treatment.

Commenting on the research, Dr Marcus Harbord, consultant gastroenterologist at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and The Lister Hospital, says: ‘This is an interesting idea. The concept is that the sodium alginate forms a gel over the stomach contents to prevent back flow.’ 

‘A number of alginate preparations are used for heartburn, but its use in laryngopharyngeal reflux is useful as it prevents not just acids, but other stomach content, flowing back.

‘That is important because they can also damage the sensitive linings of the throat and larynx. ‘Proton-pump inhibitors are in widespread use, but they are expensive. ‘People using them have a threefold increase of acquiring a hospital infection, such as Clostridium difficile infection, a common cause of diarrhoea in hospital.’

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