Heartburn medications are the third top selling drug in America and a whopping 44% of Americans experience heartburn at least once per month (1). With that said, it’s clear that heartburn or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), is a huge problem in the United States.
But are heartburn medications the right solution?
Most heartburn drugs act by blocking the acid production in your stomach. These drugs are called proton pump inhibitors.
But what most people don’t know is that acid-blocking drugs are a double-edged sword.
The problem with these drugs is that your body actually needs acid to stay healthy.
Since stomach acid has been given such a bad rap, it’s easy to forget that stomach acid is needed to
- Digest protein and food
- Activate digestive enzymes in your small intestine
- Keep harmful bacteria from growing in your small intestine
- Help you absorb important nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B12
So when you inhibit your stomach’s acid production, several issues can arise.
How Acid-Blocking Drugs Could Be Harming Your Body
When you take heartburn medication for long periods of time, it can cause a wide range of issues. This is because it keeps you from properly digesting food and absorbing essential vitamins & minerals.
One study, for example, suggested that the long term use of heartburn medication can cause vitamin B12 deficiencies which are known to cause deep depression, anemia, fatigue, and even nerve damage (2).
Research has also shown that heartburn medication can also cause harmful overgrowths of bacteria in the small intestine (3). These bacteria, called Clostridia, most often lead to bloating, gas, abdominal pain, IBS, and diarrhea. In the worst case scenarios, Clostridia can lead to life-threatening infections.
Unfortunately the problems don’t end there.
Long-term use of heartburn medication has also been linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis and it even can make your heartburn worse (4).
How Acid-Blocking Drugs Can Make Your Heartburn Worse
When used over several months or more, heartburn medications often cause magnesium deficiencies. This is because stomach acid is required for the body to absorb magnesium (5).
Magnesium is essential for more than 300 different enzymatic processes and countless other bodily functions. Among them is muscle control.
When your body lacks magnesium, it makes it difficult for your esophagus to move food along into your stomach. This process is called peristalsis.
When your esophagus cannot efficiently push food down into your stomach, it moves slowly. When this happens, it may feel like your food gets (nearly) stuck in your throat.
In fact, I used to get this sensation all the time until I started getting magnesium in my diet.
There are also valves at the top and bottom of your stomach called sphincters. The top sphincter of your stomach can prevent stomach acid and food from coming back up. When food and stomach acid comes back up, it causes the burning sensation you may recognize as heartburn.
So when your esophagus is not properly functioning and the sphincters don’t work right, you will most likely experience chronic heartburn.
Simply put, acid-blocking medications can cause a vicious cycle that leads to more and more heartburn:
Heartburn–> Take an Acid-blocking drug–> Magnesium Absorption Blocked–> Magnesium Deficiency –> Heartburn
Overcoming Heartburn Without Acid-Blocking Drugs
Treating heartburn without acid-blocking drugs can take some experimentation but it’s completely do-able.
I’ve had heartburn for more than 10 years and never thought I would get rid of it. That is until I adopted a healthy lifestyle. What seemed to help me the most was avoiding dairy, processed foods, and getting daily probiotics into my diet.
But what worked for me may not work for you. So here are some steps you can take to permanently overcome heartburn:
Step 1: Test for the cause
- Ask your doctor for an H. pylori blood antibody test, as this can sometimes be the cause
- Request a test for IgG food allergies and even celiac disease
- Ask your doctor to check for a small bowel bacterial overgrowth with a breath or urine analysis
- Determine if your heartburn is caused by a lack or overabundance of stomach acid. Sometimes a lack of acid causes an overproduction of stomach acid. This is often seen in those who suffer from heartburn first thing in the morning (especially after drinking water with no food).
Step 2: Change Your Diet
- Experiment with eliminating dairy and gluten from your diet for more than 3-4 weeks (if you didn’t get a food allergy test).
- Avoid processed and refined foods
- Eat smaller more frequent meals
- Eliminate caffeine, alcohol, tomato-based, and spicy foods
Step 3: Give Natural Remedies a Try
- Consider digestive enzymes and/or taking a probiotic
- Try magnesium citrate or glycinate (those are absorbed the best) to restore your magnesium levels
- Although it may sound counterintuitive, some people have had relief with apple cider vinegar or lemon water. This worked for me sometimes.
- Lastly, you can try 75-100 mg of zin carnosine 2x a day between meals. This is frequently used as a treatment in Japan.