Symptoms of GERD, often referred to as acid reflux, is so common these days that providers don’t blink an eye before prescribing proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s). Antacids are practically as ubiquitous as chewing gum. In fact, global sales of Omeprazole, the active ingredient in Prilosec OTC, is expected to top $4.1 billion by 2026. These drugs are designed to reduce stomach acid, therefore inhibiting acid reflux. It seems like a logical approach, but it’s not always the best short-term solution and long-term use of PPI’s can lead to big health risks.
How Do PPI’s work?
The stomach is designed to pump out a mixture of enzymes and stomach acid when we eat. The stomach should maintain an acidity level around a pH of 2.5-3.5. The primary purpose of stomach acid is to denature or unravel tightly bound proteins in your food. When that happens, proteins can release bound micronutrients such as iron and B12. Once the “heavy lifting” is done by stomach acid, proteins can move into the intestines to be further degraded to amino acids before being absorbed into the bloodstream.
When a person consumes a PPI like Prilosec, their stomach acid is reduced. While this may seem like a common-sense approach to acid reflux, most acid reflux is not due to too much stomach acid. In fact, stomach acid normally decreases as we age and during times of stress. In fact, this is a primary reason that elderly people are at higher risk for deficiencies like low B12 and calcium levels. If the stomach does not have enough acidity to denature proteins thoroughly, then micronutrients that are bound to proteins do not fully digest or absorb.
Another concern linked to long-term use of PPI’s is that by reducing stomach acid the body loses its natural defenses to kill pathogens. The same stomach acid that is breaking down proteins in our meals is also killing dangerous microbes that make their way into our bodies via food. This exposes the body to serious infections. In reality, PPI’s are not meant to be taken for more than about 6 weeks.
Instead of reducing stomach acid, it is much more effective to improve digestive function. This can be achieved by implementing habits like:
- Not drinking water with meals (Average pH of water is 7.4)
- Proper food combining such as not eating starches with proteins, (they require two different pH levels to digest). Instead eating starches with vegetables or protein with vegetables.
- Eating in a relaxed state – stress reduces stomach acid
- Smelling food as it cooks which increases acid production.
- Taking a digestive enzyme that improves the breakdown of protein, fats and carbs, taking pressure off the digestive system.
- Eliminating food sensitivities.
Acid reflux should not be ignored or taken lightly. There are serious health risks associated with long-term GERD symptoms. However, while PPI’s may control reflux symptoms, they are putting you at risk for other equally dangerous conditions. Instead of masking symptoms with PPI’s, address the root cause of acid reflux by improving your body’s digestive function.