Is Heartburn and GERD Medication Really Safe?

At some point, most people experience the uncomfortable feeling of heartburn. While heartburn is typically associated with a burning feeling in the chest and/or throat, there are other symptoms that can be experienced as well, including difficulty swallowing, chest and/or back pain, chronic hoarseness or cough, sore throat or the feeling of food getting caught in the throat.

Heartburn is caused by stomach acid that is released into the esophagus when the LES (lower esophageal sphincter) muscular valve malfunctions and allows stomach acid to flow back into the esophagus, causing irritation and that all-too-common burning feeling. This discomfort can last from a few minutes to hours and can interfere with sleep, focus and activities, so to get immediate relief, most people automatically reach for an over-the-counter (OTC) heartburn medication.

There are a number of things that can trigger heartburn, and it can be different for everyone. Individual triggers can include overeating, food with high acid content, smoking, caffeine, onions, alcohol, food allergies and other things. Unfortunately, heartburn has become so commonplace that most people don’t realize it’s a symptom and not a normal part of life.

Because OTC relief can easily be found through seemingly harmless antacids like Tums, Alka-Seltzer and Mylanta as well as formerly prescription-only PPIs (proton pump inhibitors) like Nexium, Prevacid, Zantac and Prilosec, they’re thought of as safe “go-to” ways of preventing or relieving heartburn. This couldn’t be further from the truth – heartburn medication, including non-prescription types, come with their own set of health risks, especially for chronic users. Known health risks include:

  • acute kidney injury (AKI)
  • chronic kidney disease (CKD)
  • vitamin B12 or magnesium deficiency
  • higher risk of certain bacterial infections, bone fractures, osteoporosis, pneumonia, dementia, heart problems
  • reduction in calcium absorption

Approximately 20 million Americans take PPIs for mild to moderate heartburn, but PPIs weren’t originally intended for that. Instead, PPIs were created to treat more serious physician-diagnosed ailments like esophageal damage caused by severe acid reflux, bleeding ulcers and a few other extreme issues. It’s estimated that over 90 percent of patients prescribed PPIs do not have health issues requiring their use. However, long-term users of PPIs need to be weaned off them; stopping use suddenly can cause serious withdrawal symptoms such as severe stomach pain and hyperacidity.

Occasional heartburn is one thing, but persistent heartburn, called GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), can lead to esophageal cancer and may be a symptom of an underlying health issue like an H. pylori imbalance or too little stomach acid. Doctors typically prescribe PPIs to patients with GERD in an attempt to lessen the symptoms, thereby temporarily restoring their quality of life and possibly reducing the risk of esophageal cancer. However, this is only treating the symptom; it’s far more important to diagnose and heal the underlying cause of GERD. If an insufficient amount of stomach acid is being produced, patients are prone to even more serious conditions such as food poisoning, infections of the digestive system and nutritional deficiencies.

Rather than taking medications to alleviate heartburn, a better strategy is to prevent heartburn through dietary changes, adding or increasing probiotics or adding certain supplements to improve digestion. By restoring gut health and eliminating your personal triggers, you can end heartburn safely and naturally while improving your immune system, microbiome and overall health.

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