Heartburn, acid reflux and GERD are typically treated with Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) like Prevacid, Nexium, Prilosec, Zantac and Pepcid. Because they’re so commonly prescribed – the latest estimates are that approximately 15 million Americans use PPIs, making it a $13 billion industry globally – most people think nothing of taking them or popping OTC heartburn relief products.
But these medications are only suppressing symptoms by blocking the production of stomach acid, they’re not curing the underlying issue that’s causing you to feel miserable. And what’s worse – they’re known to cause additional serious health problems, including bone fractures, serious vitamin/mineral deficiencies, vomiting, kidney disease, infectious diarrhea, and more. Now researchers are reporting – not for the first time – that they are associated with an increased risk of death as well.
A new study, published in The BMJ, followed over 214,000 new PPI users for ten years and found there were “45 excess deaths for every 1,000 PPI users”. Causes of these early deaths included cardiovascular or chronic kidney disease, or upper digestive system cancers. To make matters worse, about half of the people who had been prescribed PPIs had none of the indicators for their use. Similar results are being reported by medical and pharmaceutical journals all around the world, with cases of overprescription and/or prescriptions given without a clear indication ranging from 40 percent to over 70 percent. In fact, the Pharmaceutical Journal reports that overprescription of PPIs has become “the norm” globally.
Chronic heartburn, acid reflux, GERD and related conditions can be extremely uncomfortable, to say the least. Symptoms of these conditions can go far beyond a burning sensation in your chest or throat; they can include a feeling of having a lump in your throat, vomiting, chest pain (which can mimic a heart attack), nausea, bad breath, difficulty swallowing or even respiratory problems.
But those symptoms are just the beginning of the story – they’re your body’s signal that it needs help, that an underlying condition needs to be fixed. So by taking an OTC or prescription PPI, you may lessen or eliminate the symptom temporarily, but you’re only suppressing your body’s signal, you’re not healing the actual cause. And any untreated health issue can lead to other, sometimes more serious health problems; however, in the case of PPIs – whether OTC or prescribed – the medicine can be a risk in and of itself.
Previous research supports the latest studies. It was reported in 2017 that an even larger study followed over 349,000 PPI users for just under six years and concluded that there was a “statistically significant excess risk of death”, which translated into 47 deaths annually for every 1,000 PPI users. In addition, the longer PPIs were used, the greater the risk of death, especially in patients with no recorded GI problems who were prescribed PPIs.
These latest findings reported in BMJ recommend that if PPIs are deemed necessary by a physician, they should be taken for the shortest period of time and in the lowest possible dosage amount. Unfortunately, some people may still experience serious and permanent side effects, or they may still be at risk of premature death; in addition, many physicians make no effort to decrease their patients’ dosage requirements or attempt to wean them off the drugs, despite the numerous warnings worldwide.
Rather than jumping into taking medications for relief, it makes more sense to look for the reason why these symptoms are plaguing you and find out if there’s a safer treatment protocol. A simple change in diet may be all that’s required. Your functional medicine doctor will take your health history and lifestyle into consideration in order to request lab tests that are more in-depth and conclusive, allowing a more pinpointed determination as to the root cause of your symptoms and what your individual course of corrective action should be.