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Burn Out

We spend $13 billion annually on acid-blocking drugs for heartburn and indigestion—drugs that don’t address the root symptoms. Here’s what really works.

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The term indigestion is often used to describe heartburn and/or upper abdominal pain as well as a feeling of gaseousness, difficulty swallowing, feelings of pressure or heaviness after eating, sensations of bloating after eating, stomach or abdominal pains and cramps, or fullness in the abdomen. The medical terms used to describe indigestion include functional dyspepsia (FD), non-ulcer dyspepsia (NUD), and gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD).

These are among the most popular diagnoses in North America, and yet several review articles have concluded that the efficacy of current drugs on the market is limited at best. The most popular of these ineffective drugs are acid blockers, which work by impeding one of the most important digestive processes—the secretion of hydrochloric acid by the stomach.

Bad Block

Acid-blocker drugs are divided into two general groups: the older histamine-receptor antagonist group, which includes Zantac, Tagamet, and Pepcid AC; and the newer and more potent proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) that include Nexium, Prilosec, Protonix, Prevacid, and Aciphex.

These drugs are a huge business with total sales exceeding $13 billion annually. The pharmaceutical companies love them because they’re expensive, don’t produce a true cure, but do suppress symptoms. But the fact is, these drugs interfere with the body’s natural digestive processes to produce significant disturbances in the gastrointestinal tract.

Acid-blocking drugs will typically raise the gastric pH above the normal range of 3.5, effectively inhibiting the action of pepsin, an enzyme involved in protein digestion that can be irritating to the stomach. Although raising pH can reduce symptoms of indigestion, it also substantially blocks a normal body process.

In the digestive process, stomach acid initiates protein digestion, plus it ionizes minerals and other nutrients for enhanced absorption. And without sufficient secretion of HCl in the stomach, the pancreas doesn’t get the signal to secrete its digestive enzymes.

Stomach acid isn’t just important for digestion; it also helps protect the body from invasion. Stomach secretions can neutralize bacteria, viruses, and molds before they can cause gastrointestinal infection.

The Natural Approach

With chronic indigestion, rather than blocking the digestive process with antacids, the rational approach is to focus on aiding digestion. Most nutrition-oriented physicians believe that lack of acid, not excess, is the true culprit in many cases.

There are a number of natural treatments that can be very effective in relieving GERD/NUD. Although much is said about hyperacidity conditions, a more common cause of indigestion is a lack of gastric acid secretion. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) supplementation can produce complete relief of indigestion in many individuals.

Typically when heartburn, abdominal bloating and discomfort, and gas occurs within 15–30 minutes after eating, it’s due to a lack of HCl secretion. If such symptoms occur after 45 minutes, it’s usually a sign of lack of pancreatic enzymes.

Keep in mind that the secretion of pancreatic enzymes is triggered by the HCl secreted in the stomach. So sometimes, taking HCl supplements can lead to improved release of pancreatic enzymes.

Digestive enzymes are the most effective treatment for pancreatic insufficiency. These preparations can include enzymes from hog pancreas (pancreatin) or vegetarian sources such as bromelain and papain (from pineapple and papaya), and fungal enzymes. I have found that the best results come from multi-enzyme preparations that focus on the vegetarian sources. They are more resistant to digestive secretions and have a broader range of activity.

Another valuable natural therapy is peppermint oil. In several studies, enteric-coated peppermint oil has been shown to relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in approximately 70–85 percent of cases within two to four weeks. Enteric-coated peppermint oil has also shown benefits in treating NUD and GERD.

do you need probiotics?

If you are wondering if you should take a probiotic supplement, take this simple quiz, courtesy of

1. Have you been on an antibiotic within the past year? Y N

2. Are you under stress that interrupts the quality of your life? Y N

3. Do you eat poorly several times a week? Y N

4. Do you have a sedentary lifestyle with very little physical activity? Y N

5. Have you been diagnosed with a serious illness within the past 12 mo.? Y N

6. Have you experienced diarrhea or constipation within the past 3 mo.? Y N

7. Do you have food allergies, outdoor allergies, or asthma? Y N

8. Do you have acne, eczema, or other skin problems? Y N

9. Do you ever experience heartburn, bloating, or gas after you eat? Y N

10. Do you frequently get colds and flu? Y N

11. Do you travel frequently? Y N

12. Are you overweight by at least 10 pounds? Y N

13. Do you have a family history of cancer, heart disease, or diabetes? Y N


other side effects of acid-blocking drugs

As a class, acid-blocking drugs are associated with numerous side effects, but are for some reason generally regarded as safe, with many now available over-the-counter. However, because these drugs block a vital bodily function, digestive disturbances are quite common and can include: nausea, constipation, and diarrhea.

Nutrient deficiencies can also develop as a result of impaired digestion. Other possible side effects include: allergic reactions, headaches, breast enlargement in men (with Tagamet and Zantac), hair loss, and dizziness.

Here are some additional concerns that you typically won’t find on patient handouts on acid blockers:

Pneumonia – People using acid blockers were 4.5 times more likely to develop pneumonia as people who never use the drugs. Apparently, without acid in the stomach, bacteria from the intestine can migrate upstream to reach the throat and lungs to cause infection.

Increased fractures – People who take high doses of acid-blocking drugs for longer than a year had a 260 percent increase in hip fracture rates compared to people who don’t take acid blockers. Evidence suggests that these drugs may disrupt bone remodeling, thus making bones weaker and more prone to fracture.

Vitamin B12 deficiency – Acid-blocking drugs not only reduce the secretion of stomach acid, but also intrinsic factor, a compound that binds to and assists the absorption of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 deficiency is among the most common nutritional inadequacies in older people. Studies indicate that 10–43 percent of the elderly are deficient in vitamin B12, putting them at risk for a number of health conditions including dementia.

UAS LABORATORIES PROBIOPLUS DDS aids in maintaining normal intestinal flora with beneficial bacteria including the highly stable Lactobacillus acidophilus (DDS-1 strain).

NOW FOODS DIGEST PLATINUM enzyme formula is a full spectrum formula that aids in the breakdown of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Capsules are non-GMO and vegetarian.

NATREN MEGADOPHILUS DAIRY FREE is cultured with probiotic “superstrain” Lactobacillus acidophilus, which populates the small intestine where most digestion takes place for a healthy gut environment.

ESSENTIAL FORMULAS DR. OHHIRA’S PROBIOTICS is a comprehensive probiotic formula that helps ease digestive discomfort including acid reflux and assists in protein digestion.

THE VITAMIN SHOPPE BETAINE HCL is formulated for quick delivery and absorption, with HCl from sugar beets, along with pepsin for digestive support.