The Unseen Effects of Heartburn and Indigestion Medications
The following is adapted from The Search for the Perfect Protein.
If you watch much TV, you’ve undoubtedly seen a heartburn medication commercial at some point. The makers of Pepcid and Zantac confidently tell us we can eat a hoagie with sausage and peppers and not feel any heartburn. How wonderful!
Except these commercials send the wrong message. They indoctrinate the public to believe the answer to their problem is another drug: “I’ll take this, and I’ll be fine.”
This mindset ignores the root causes of heartburn and indigestion and sends us down the wrong treatment pathway. In my experience, when people understand how stomach acid aids our digestion, they’re less likely to turn to a medication that blocks the production of stomach acid. They want their body to functional normally.
Let’s look quickly at the role stomach acid plays in our body, then see how medications like Pepcid and Zantac make the problem worse by not treating the root issue.
Stomach Acid at Work in Our Bodies
Adequate protein intake is a cornerstone of good overall health, but to reap the full benefits, protein needs to be properly digested. That process begins as we chew and turn food into liquids so stomach acids can chemically break down protein fibers.
Once food reaches the stomach, the true digestion process commences. Stomach hydrochloric acid (HCl) is added to the liquid mixture of food, and the acids cause the protein’s coiled structures to open up or uncoil. The HCl also activates the pepsinogen enzyme to its active form, which is called pepsin. Pepsin starts to separate the protein amino acid chains into smaller units. For this process to occur, the acid levels in the stomach must be at the pH level of 1 to 2, which is very acidic.
We measure acidity and alkalinity by using the pH scale. The scale goes from 1 to 14. The lower the number the stronger the acid. In the middle is water which has a pH of about 7. This is considered neutral. Above 7 and up to 14 is alkaline.
Due to aging or nutritional deficiencies, most people over the age of forty have a stomach pH that is higher than the one-to-two range. Since digestion is compromised at higher pH levels, they won’t digest protein as well as a twenty-year-old will.
For example, a strand of steak or halibut is a long muscle protein made up of thousands of amino acids per strand, and it must be broken down into smaller pieces until it hits the digestion endpoint in the small intestine, where all amino acids are either single, or in much shorter chains in order for them to be absorbed in the small intestine.
If the pH of the stomach reaches a level of seven, it fully compromises digestion and impairs mineral absorption—we often find that individuals with a high stomach pH also have zinc, selenium, iron, iodine, and magnesium deficiencies.
Stomach pH also influences digestive system functionality. There is a valve between the esophagus and stomach called the gastro esophageal sphincter which is triggered to close when stomach acidity is high. If the pH is 1 or 2, the valve works as it should: it closes, and you won’t get reflux. If you have a pH of 4 or 5, you’re still acidic, but not enough to trigger the valve to close. This pH level causes acids to bubble up into your lower esophagus, which can cause burning in the throat, heartburn, and pain.
If the cause of heartburn is lowered amounts of stomach acid, we give patients hydrochloric acid tablets to take with meals, which will lower the pH and close the valve—these tablets eliminate heartburn without the need for stomach acid-blocking drugs. (If you suspect you have this condition, you can work with a nutritional-oriented health care practitioner to monitor you for healing and the best results.)
How Medication Undoes Our Body’s Natural Functions
Now that you see how stomach acid aids in digestion, it’s easier to understand why blindly turning to heartburn and indigestion medications like Pepcid and Zantac is not the best choice. It’s always best to treat the underlying cause of the problem.
With heartburn, food allergies or intolerances are often the culprit, but because of the messaging we see on TV and in other forms of advertisement, we look for a solution in a pill. The truth is, taking heartburn medication on a regular basis is comparable to numbing your hand with an anesthetic and then putting your hand on a hot stove.
You won’t feel the pain, but you’ll smell the burning flesh, and you know that it isn’t good for you. But since it doesn’t hurt, you don’t remove your hand.
And there are a lot of “burned hands” in this country. Roughly15 million prescriptions are written every month for Nexium alone. This number doesn’t include all of the purchases of drugs that block stomach acid to relieve heartburn and acid reflux—billion-dollar brands like Zantac and Pepcid are available over-the-counter.
These drugs poison the parietal cells in the stomach (which make hydrochloric acid), so they stop producing acid, which is detrimental to protein digestion among other things.
I also pity anyone who goes to the doctor because of heartburn or an ulcer—let’s hope the gastroenterologist doesn’t find H. pylori on an endoscopy. The patient will be prescribed three different antibiotics that not only kill the bad bacteria, but also kill the good, natural flora in the intestine. Not only that, they will also breed overgrowth of yeasts and toxic bacteria that are notantibiotic-sensitive. It’s unfortunate that people get into endless cycles and distort their normal physiology due to incorrect interventions, when there are better ways to restore normal function that won’t lead to these issues.
The Simplest Course of Action
Simple actions like restoring stomach acid with supplemental hydrochloric acid, adding pancreatic digestive enzymes, using probiotics to restore normal flora, and taking amino acid supplements to give the body the essential amino acids blend into a scenario that restores health—without the use of compromising drug therapies. These interventions usually work, and they are always worth a try if the practitioner is up to snuff.
For more advice on dealing with your heartburn and indigestion in a way that doesn’t sacrifice your health, you can find The Search for the Perfect Protein on Amazon.
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