I recently read an article that indicated the use of drugs that block stomach acid may be associated with cognitive impairment in older African-American adults. According to the study, the risk for showing signs of cognitive impairment is 2.5 times greater for patients using these medications1. Another study showed acid-blocking drugs to increase risk of pneumonia2. More than 16 million prescriptions of acid-blocking drugs were dispensed in 2005, and several of these medications are also available over the counter. Heartburn drugs are among the most widely prescribed medications in the United States, accounting for more than $13 billion in annual sales.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, over 95 million Americans experience some kind of digestive problem. Over 10 million people are hospitalized each year for care of gastrointestinal problems and the total health care costs exceed $40 billion annually. While many digestive problems are more common as people get older, they can occur at any age, even in children. All Americans are susceptible to digestive problems ...
Oh my. I feel another "soapbox moment" coming on. As a holistic practitioner, I have been keenly aware of the potential long-term side effects of these acid-blocking drugs for some time now. From food allergies and depression to poor calcium absorption and rosacea, we often recognize low stomach acid -- and thus, poor digestion -- as the root cause of chronic inflammation and many other health problems. I realize the conventional medical field does not acknowledge this. For example, a nurse practitioner once told one of my patients that humans didn't need stomach acid anymore, and that it was an "evolutionary holdover" from when we as humans used to eat bark. Hmm. I respectfully -- but completely -- disagree. I believe, as do many of my holistic colleagues, that we not only need stomach acid, but most of the symptoms normally attributed to too much stomach acid are actually from too little.
Our bodies put a lot of energy into the production of stomach acid. Why do they do this? Are we unknowingly munching on bark in our sleep? Actually, acid is part of the process of digesting proteins. It protects us by killing bacteria, viruses and fungi before they can enter the body. It turns the vitamins and minerals in food into forms our bodies can absorb and use. In addition, when we don't have enough stomach acid, the muscle (lower esophageal sphincter) that keeps stomach contents from bubbling up into the esophagus does not close properly, thus creating acid reflux and the symptoms of heartburn. Other symptoms of low acid are bloating, belching, farting (that's the technical term), indigestion, diarrhea and constipation. The use of antacids temporarily masks symptoms, but in the long run it is exactly the wrong treatment for most people. Lastly, when the stomach is not allowed to produce acid, the rest of the gastrointestinal tract is adversely affected. Either it is not stimulated to do its job properly or it is exposed to inadequately digested proteins which aggravate it.
Excuse the pun, but I realize this is a bitter purple pill to swallow. Unless you have been told you have an ulcer or a hiatal hernia causing your symptoms, chances are you need to stimulate more acid secretion. One simple trick is taking a half teaspoon of organic apple cider vinegar in half a cup of water before meals. For many of my patients, this is all that is needed to stop acid reflux. I also recommend reducing alcohol and inflammatory foods and not eating late at night. In addition, I urge you to read the book Why Stomach Acid is Good For You: Natural Relief from Heartburn, Indigestion, Reflux & GERD by Jonathan V. Wright, MD, and Lane Lenard, PhD. In conclusion, I cannot emphasize enough just how important proper digestion -- including adequate stomach acid -- is to the overall health of your body. To borrow a quote: When asked about the importance of digestion, a Chinese medicine doctor replied in a matter-of fact tone (please imagine a Chinese accent here), "Stomach bad, you die." That pretty much sums it up.
Take care of your (whole) self --
Amy Bader, ND
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Boustani, M. The Association Between Cognition and Histamine-2 Receptor Antagonists in African Americans. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, August 2007; Vol 55: pp. 1253.
Seppa, Nathan. Affairs of the Heartburn: Drugs for Stomach Acid May Hike Pneumonia Risk. Science News, 30 October, 2004.