If you have trouble with indigestion or heartburn – you’re not alone. Acid-related digestive issues frequently affect nearly one-third of us.* Symptoms vary from occasional heartburn to uncomfortable chest pains and trouble swallowing during the day and sleep disturbances at night. This discomfort has led those suffering to turn to a variety of remedies in an attempt to reduce their symptoms.
But these common acid remedies are not without risks and complications. Just because something is commonly used or recommended doesn’t make it necessarily the safest or the best option for you. Specifically, Proton Pump Inhibitors, or PPIs which millions of American adults use on a regular basis, have been known to have many long-term risks that may outweigh their temporary benefits.
This issue is very personal for me since my niece who often spends summers helping out with my four children suffers with acid issues.
Thankfully there are diet, lifestyle and plant-based alternatives available that can help reduce and manage your acid discomfort. Read on to learn about the dangers of some popular acid medications, along with some natural approaches that can provide the relief you have been searching for without unwanted side effects or long term risks.
What is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux happens when stomach acid and contents flow back into the esophagus or throat.* Normally, a valve (esophageal sphincter) keeps this acidic content in the stomach, but sometimes this valve becomes weakened and allows things to move up instead of down – causing all kinds of discomfort and problems.
Your stomach is naturally acidic and this is not by mistake. The acidity of the stomach helps break down food and assists in the digestion process.* But like most things in your body, everything has its place.
The lining of your stomach can typically handle this acidic environment, but delicate throat tissue has a harder time dealing with acid and can become irritated if exposed to stomach contents.
The main symptoms of acid reflux include*:
- Heartburn (burning sensation in your chest)
- Chest pain
- Sore throat
- Trouble swallowing
- Food regurgitation
Most people experience symptoms after eating and some can have symptoms appear at night, once they’re lying down, disrupting sleep. Standing or sitting up allows for food to naturally go down (thanks to gravity) but if you’re lying in bed, your body has to work harder to move your dinner through your digestive system.
What Causes Acid Reflux?
If you suffer from acid reflux, you may be wondering why you have it and others don’t. Certain risk factors increase your risk of developing acid reflux. Age is one of the most common causes of acid reflux and this is due to the weakening of the esophageal sphincter. As we age, this valve loses its ability to stay tightly closed. This is why acid reflux is much more common in older adults.*
There are also mechanical causes of acid reflux, where the body and stomach are put under pressure, causing acidic contents to enter the esophagus. Pregnancy, hiatal hernias, and obesity are all risk factors for acid reflux.*
Stress is another common cause of acid reflux.* This is due to the body’s natural response to release certain hormones during stress that cause the stomach to make more acid than is needed.
Scientific evidence also points to imbalances in healthy bacteria in the stomach as a cause for excess acid production. If there is an overabundance of a certain bacteria or invasion of an infectious bacteria, like Helicobacter pylori (H. Pylori), this can contribute to acid symptoms and discomfort as well.*
Medications for Acid Issues
Antacids likes Tums and Alka-Seltzer were the first class of acid reflux medications available. These work by neutralizing the acid content in the stomach due to their high alkalinity (the opposite of acidity).* These relatively mild medications work well for some people but the relief doesn’t last very long and require increased doses to give you the relief you need.
Another commonly used medication for acid reflux is a class called H2 receptor blockers. These work by reducing acid production in the stomach by blocking the H2 receptors (rather than simply neutralizing the acid as antacids do).* Examples of H2 blockers include Zantac and Pepcid AC.
The most popular acid reflux reducers are Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs). Like H2 blockers, PPIs work by reducing acid production. This is done by interfering with an enzyme in the stomach that releases acid used for digestion.*
Up until 2015, most PPIs were only available by prescription, but since then many PPIs like Prilosec and Nexium, have become available over the counter (OTC) and their use has undoubtedly increased.*
Some of the more common PPIs include:
- Prilosec (omeprazole)
- Nexium (esomeprazole)
- Prevacid (lansoprazole)
- Protonix (pantoprazole)
These medications can provide relief for acid reflux symptoms, but they do this by disrupting the pH balance of the stomach and don’t address other causes like gut microbiome imbalance.
Dangers of PPIs
Although heavily used, PPIs have been known to cause several side effects and impact important processes related to nutrient absorption and even brain function. According to the FDA, side effects of PPIs like Prilosec include headaches, diarrhea, constipation, cold symptoms, and dizziness.*
It’s important to know that the FDA advises people to only take PPIs for 14 days. Despite this warning that appears on the label of many of these products, these PPIs are often prescribed for continuous use.
You should know that scientific research shows that there can be harmful consequences of long-term PPI use. For example, PPIs can interfere with how well your body absorbs vital minerals and vitamins needed for proper functioning and cognition.*
Studies have shown patients who take PPIs may be at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency. B12 deficiency can contribute to cognitive decline and certain types of anemia, especially in older adults.*
PPIs have also been shown to lower vitamin C concentrations and calcium levels. The FDA released a warning in 2010 highlighting the potential risk of bone fractures due to long-term PPI use.*
Although rarer, chronic PPI use can also cause low magnesium levels. And iron concentrations can be lowered with PPIs and subsequently put a person at risk for iron deficiency anemia.*
An increased risk of infections and rebound acid production have also been associated with long-term PPI use.*
If you suffer from acid issues, I highly recommend that you consider a few simple lifestyle changes and give the available natural solutions a try to see if these will ease your acid discomfort and allow you to sleep better without having to worry about any long-term consequences.
Natural Ways to Reduce Acid Reflux
If you suffer from acid reflux, changing your diet and implementing a few lifestyle adjustments can make a big difference. For those who are overweight, returning to a healthy weight can reduce the pressure on the stomach and subsequently reduce acid reflux symptoms.*
Eating smaller meals and eating more slowly will allow your stomach to properly digest food, reducing the risk of regurgitation and reflux. Try thinking of your stomach as a small tank, holding your meal while it’s being broken down. If you fill the tank up too fast or too much – things are going to spill out. This ‘spilling out’ of contents back into the esophagus is one common cause of indigestion and acid reflux symptoms.
Cutting back on alcohol, coffee, and spicy foods can also reduce your symptoms. Carbonated drinks increase your risk of burping which can make acid issues worse so reducing those fizzy beverages can help manage your symptoms.*
Changing your sleeping position, including sleeping on an incline can reduce acid reflux symptoms too.*
If you smoke, quitting smoking can improve how well your esophageal sphincter works.*
There are also several plant-based nutrients known to ease acid reflux symptoms which can be great additions to diet and lifestyle changes. Licorice and licorice root have shown benefit in reducing acid discomfort without unwanted side effects or long-term risks.*
Ginger is another natural digestion remedy commonly used to reduce nausea. But it also helps reduce indigestion and acid issues. Remember the tank analogy? Ginger helps improve how well the tank empties into the intestines, something called gastric emptying. This means food doesn’t hang out in your stomach and the risk of regurgitation or acid flow up into the esophagus is reduced.*
Peppermint has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine and used in teas and tinctures to relieve pain and support relaxation. Peppermint may improve stomach discomfort caused by acid.* Slippery elm bark is another herbal remedy used in Chinese medicine known to protect the lining of the esophagus from acidity and help soothe inflamed tissue.*
When it comes to reducing acid and the troublesome symptoms caused by acid, using natural remedies can help restore proper gut function and bring relief without dangerous side effects often seen with popular acid medications.