Dr. Andrew and staff
Back in medical school we learned to prescribe proton pump inhibitors (such as Prilosec) for heartburn. Then, when patients got osteoporosis, we were supposed to prescribe bisphosphonates (like Fosamax)—which cause ulcers, jaw bone destruction, and many other problems—and horse urine hormones (Premarin)—which cause breast cancer, heart disease, and strokes. Then, when patients had their heart attack, we were supposed to prescribe statin drugs (such as Zocor)—which cause liver damage, depression, diabetes, muscle damage (including the heart muscle), hormone deficiencies, and so forth. You get the picture.
Prescribing acid-blocking drugs to treat heartburn is based on the presumption that there is too much acid in the stomach. To be sure, a gastroenterologist could do a scope and place a pH probe in the stomach to monitor its acidity for 24 hours. In practice, I have never seen this done. Doctors will often prescribe acid-blocking drugs after seeing abnormalities in the esophagus or stomach during a scope procedure but, again, they are making the assumption that too much acid is the cause of those abnormalities, which is anything but scientific.
Like depression, ADHD, headaches, chronic fatigue syndrome, and the rest of today’s vogue illnesses, heartburn is not a disease at all. It is merely a symptom of an underlying imbalance. Paradoxically, most people with heartburn do not have too much stomach acid. Instead, many have too little. But when any acid at all gets into the esophagus—where it doesn’t belong—it can cause intense burning, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, chronic coughing, hoarseness, etc.
In combination with other agents, acid blockers are very effective in the treatment of ulcers. Healing occurs in a matter of weeks. Unfortunately, many patients first present to us after decades of treatment with these drugs, which were originally FDA-approved for treatment courses lasting eight weeks. What their doctors did not know is that the human body requires stomach acid to digest proteins and absorb vitamin B12 (think fatigue and anemia) and key minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, chromium, molybdenum, manganese, and copper. Most people were never warned that long-term suppression of stomach acid can cause osteoporosis, yeast overgrowth, hair loss, charley horses, food allergies, rashes (including hives), diarrhea, constipation, weak fingernails, acne, asthma, bloating, belching, gas, gallbladder problems, autoimmune diseases, thyroid disease, and much more. Most of these effects don’t even make it to the rapid-fire list of dangers you hear during the last 10 seconds of the commercial telling you how your life is going to be transformed by that purple pill. Unfortunately, because many of these effects take years to develop, people don’t realize they were caused by the magic pill that keeps their heartburn away.
Before you or someone you love reaches for any magic pill to make your symptoms go away, seek out a doctor who is trained in finding and treating the causes of gastrointestinal symptoms, not just suppressing them. Alternatively, if bloating, belching, gas, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, or any other symptom has become such a way of life for you that you have convinced yourself it is normal, think again. While you may think they are just annoyances you have to live with, in reality they signal imbalances that can eventually lead to serious diseases, such as colon cancer. A little detective work and a few changes now may not only make the symptoms go away but also save you a lot of money, unnecessary procedures, and serious diseases in the long run.
Dr. Andrew is board-certified in Family Medicine and has additional training in Functional and Anti-Aging Medicine.