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3 Simple Steps to Eliminate Heartburn and Acid Reflux

Posted Aug 12 2009 10:22pm 1 Comment

Are millions of us born with a genetic defect that makes us produce too much stomach acid?

Do we just have a major evolutionary design flaw that requires us to take powerful acid-blocking drugs to prevent heartburn and reflux?

I believe that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding "no."

In this week's blog, I'll explain why, but more importantly, I will outline a simple 3-step approach that will help you prevent acid reflux and heartburn by treating its underlying causes.

The Truth about Acid-Blocking Medications

At least 10 percent of Americans have episodes of heartburn every day, and 44 percent have symptoms at least once a month. Overall, reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as heartburn) affects a whopping 25 to 35 percent of the US population!

As a result, acid-blocking medications are the third top-selling type of drug in America today. Two other drugs to treat reflux, Nexium and Prevacid, are in the top 10 best-selling drugs and account for $5.7 and $4.0 billion in sales annually!

Things have certainly changed since I was in medical school.

In those days, GERD wasn't even considered a serious disease. Instead, people had heartburn or ulcers, but that was pretty much it.

And when acid-blocking drugs first came on the market, even the pharmaceutical representatives warned us how powerful these drugs were. They told us not to prescribe them any longer than 6 weeks and only for patients with documented ulcers.

What a difference a few decades make!

Now, these drugs are given like candy to anyone who ate too many hot dogs at a ball game -- and one drug, Prilosec, is now available without a prescription.

No wonder these drugs are so popular. Their manufacturers have created the illusion that we can eat whatever we want with no consequences, just by popping a pill.

They even have commercials showing a family rushing to stop their father from eating a big sausage with fried onions and peppers -- and he tells them not to worry because he took his acid-blocking pill!

I know someone who used to work for the makers of Pepcid. He told me that when it first became available over the counter, teams of drug company representatives would stand at the gates of county fairs and southern barbeques and hand out free samples.

Talk about sending a bad message!

In reality, acid-blocking drugs are a double-edged sword.

Let's look at some of the recent research on the dangers of these drugs.

Acid blocking drugs obviously block acid that can cause symptoms of heartburn and reflux. But your body actually needs stomach acid to stay healthy.

We know that stomach acid is necessary to digest protein and food, activate digestive enzymes in your small intestine, keep the bacteria from growing in your small intestine, and help you absorb important nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B12.

So what happens when you take acid-blocking drugs?

There's evidence that these medications can prevent you from properly digesting food, cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and lead to problems like irritable bowel syndrome, depression, hip fractures, and more.

Studies show that people who take acid-blocking medications for the long term can become deficient in vitamin B12, which can lead to depression, anemia, fatigue, nerve damage, and even dementia, especially in the elderly.

The research also tells us that taking these drugs can cause dangerous overgrowth of bacteria in the intestine called Clostridia, leading to life-threatening infections.

For many more people, low-grade overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine leads to bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea (many of the common "side effects" noted in the warnings for these drugs).

This can cause irritable bowel syndrome.

And a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that chronic use of acid-blocking drugs leads to an increase in the development of osteoporosis and increase in hip fracture because blocking acid prevents the absorption of calcium and other minerals necessary for bone health.

And all this is only part of the problem! There have even been some reports that these drugs may increase the risk of certain cancers.

These are serious problems -- and it's pretty clear that in this case, the "cure" of acid-blocking drugs is worse than the "disease" of GERD. But that's of little comfort when you're suffering from heartburn.

So if drugs are not the answer, what is? We need to find the real causes of reflux and heartburn -- get rid of them! And we need to use the right foods, nutrients, and lifestyle therapies to heal the problem.

What Causes GERD?

Fried food, alcohol, caffeine, and soda can all trigger reflux. Spicy, tomato-based or citrus foods may also cause problems for some people. Smoking also increases the risk of reflux. Being overweight and having your belly fat push up on your stomach can prevent it from emptying, triggering reflux.

Having a hiatal hernia (where your stomach pushes up through your diaphragm) can also cause trouble and can be diagnosed by x-ray. Eating large meals and eating before bed are two other main reasons for reflux.

But there are other causes that are often overlooked. Food is supposed to go down, not up, when you eat.

That's why there are two main valves, or sphincters, that control food going in and out of your stomach -- the one at the top (or the lower esophageal sphincter) and one at the bottom (the pyloric valve).

When you're stressed, the valve on the top relaxes and the valve on the bottom tightens up.

The result? Food goes up, not down. So stress contributes to reflux.

Magnesium deficiency is another cause of reflux because magnesium helps the sphincter at the bottom of the stomach relax, allowing the food to go down.

While controversial, I believe that a common infection can cause not just ulcers but reflux as well. This bug is called H. pylori and can be identified by a simple test. It needs to be treated even if you don't have an ulcer.

Food sensitivities or allergies can also cause reflux. Common culprits include dairy and gluten-containing foods like wheat, barley, rye, and oats. Plus, overgrowth of bacteria in the small bowel or yeast overgrowth in the gut can cause reflux.

These are all treatable conditions that you don't need powerful acid blocking drugs to fix.

To properly diagnose the causes, you may need to do the following.

    1. Ask your doctor for an H. pylori blood antibody test.
    2. Consider a test for IgG food allergies and celiac disease.
    3. Get a breath or urine test to check for small bowel bacterial overgrowth.
    4. If you don't get better with the suggestions below, consider getting an upper endoscopy or upper GI series x-ray to see if there is anything else wrong.

3 Steps to Permanently Overcoming Heartburn and Acid Reflux

Step 1: Treat the Bugs if You Have Them

    • If you have H. pylori, treat it with triple antibiotic therapy from your doctor.
    • Treat yeast overgrowth with antifungal drugs such as nystatin or Diflucan or herbs such as oregano or caprylic acid.
    • Treat bacterial overgrowth in the small bowel with Xifaxin (see my blog on irritable bowel syndrome ).

Step 2: Change Your Diet

    • Try to eliminate dairy and gluten (see www.celiac.com for sources of gluten in the diet).
    • Eliminate alcohol, caffeine, citrus, tomato-based, and spicy foods.
    • Don't eat within 3 hours before bed.
    • Don't eat junk food.
    • Avoid processed foods.
    • Eat cooked foods, like fish, chicken, cooked veggies, and rice; avoid raw food for now.
    • Eat smaller, more frequent meals, at least 4 to 5 times a day.

Step 3: Try Some Natural Remedies to Help Soothe the Gut

    • Take 2 to 3 capsules of digestive enzymes with each meal.
    • Re-inoculate the gut with healthy bacteria by using probiotics.
    • Try 75 to 150 mg of zinc carnosine twice a day between meals -- this has been extensively studied and is used frequently in Japan.
    • Take 3 to 5 grams of glutamine powder in water twice a day to help heal the gut lining.
    • Chew 2 to 3 chewable tablets of DGL (a form of licorice) 15 minutes before meals.
    • Try 200 to 400 mg of magnesium citrate or glycinate twice a day.

As you can see, there's no need to suffer from heartburn and reflux -- or to take expensive and dangerous acid-blocking drugs.

I hope the changes I've suggested here will soothe your stomach and have you feeling healthy in no time!

Now I'd like to hear from you...

Do you have heartburn, reflux or GERD? What seems to trigger it?

Have you taken acid-blocking drugs? What was your experience?

What changes have worked for you in preventing and treating these problems?

Please let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, M.D.

Comments (1)
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i started suffering for reflux about 10 months ago,was put on prilosec 20mg and my problems seemed to get worst.started having pain in the upper leftside of my stomach.then started feeling tired and weak.then many test was done to check my heart,all came back normal.was given 40mg of prilosec,and problem got worst.doctors did not want to listen to me when i was telling them it was the meds,ended up in er many times.have been switched to almost all of the ppi.,with no help.after being on them all this time,more problems have started.now i am showing signs of nerve damage,have had stages of depression,and every since i've been on them meds,have had since infection.i need help,no one will listen to me,and i'm getting worst.had stop taking meds one time, other problems left,but reflux came back worst than when first started.even started having trouble breathing,doctors had me and my family thinking it was just the reflux,but was later found to be an clot in my lung(PE).i believe that those meds gave me that clot,and has something to do with the problems i'm having.i've been trying to find someone to help me before it's to late,and these want to be doctors kill me.they have my family convinced that it's just reflux.if there's anyway you can help me or turn me in the right direction,i need all the help i can get.can be reached at stev433@verizon.net .thank you in advance will try your remedies,where can i get those items.if you know of any doctor in the norfolk,va area that knows about your method of treatment,please contact. help please!!!!!!!
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