There is a group of prescription and over-the-counter medications that are known as proton pump inhibitors, PPI’s for short, and a vast majority of people in the US take these every single day.  Proton pump inhibitors reduce acid secretion in the stomach to help with acid reflux, heart burn, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and indigestion.  These meds are taken by nearly 1/4 of the world’s population on a daily basis.  And while these meds can be helpful short term, they are not meant to be taken long term and they have some very disturbing side effects.

PPI’s work by blocking a specific enzyme that controls stomach acid production.  The problem is that when a person is experiencing acid reflux or heart burn, the body is actually signaling that it is already low on stomach acid and needs more, not less.  When there is not enough stomach acid (hydrochloric acid HCl), the body experiences the symptoms of reflux.  This is known as hypochlorhydria.  It is frequently a result of poor digestion or an unhealthy gut microbiome.  Reflux is actually caused when the lower esophageal sphincter, a muscular valve that connects the esophagus to the stomach, either opens spontaneously or does not close properly.  This allows the contents of the stomach to come back up.  So it’s not a true excess of stomach acid, it’s just the stomach contents being in the wrong place, which includes the stomach acid.

When this happens, many people reach for Pepcid, Nexium, Zantac or Omeprazole.  And all can be helpful for acute cases of reflux, but many people are never told about the long term side effects of using these medications and continue taking them for years.  The list is longer and more severe than one might think.  Long term usage of PPI’s can contribute to kidney disease / failure, liver disease, headaches, bone fractures, osteoporosis, muscle pain, heart attacks, stroke, nausea, vomiting, constipation, abdominal pain, vitamin B12, calcium, iron and magnesium deficiencies, dementia and stomach cancer.

A recent meta-analysis looked at 24 different studies and concluded that the long term use of PPI’s (greater than 3-6 months) increased the risk of gastric cancer by 82%.  Other risk factors include CDAD (clostridium difficile associated disease) and community acquired pneumonia (CAP), which occur because the balance of stomach acid becomes disrupted when taking PPI’s.  So a person who has been taking PPI’s for years, stands a greater chance of contracting and dying from something like pneumonia because the work the stomach acid normally would do is impaired by the drug.

But don’t despair.  There are things you can do that will help with your reflux issues and don’t require the use of PPI’s.  One of the easiest solutions is drinking about 8 ounces of aloe vera juice on a daily basis.  Aloe vera juice helps to heal the mucosal lining of the digestive tract, making it less likely that there will be anything “backing up” in the system, even if the esophageal sphincter doesn’t function properly.

Drinking ginger tea first thing in the morning can also be very beneficial.  When you start the day off with warm liquids, it helps the digestive tract function optimally and it wakes up the good bacteria in your gut so they can do their job.  Ginger also has anti-inflammatory properties that help to calm an inflamed gut and since many of us are still eating way too much fast food, chances are pretty good that our gastrointestinal tracts are inflamed.

Deglycyrrhizinated (DGL) licorice root is another great home remedy.  DGL can help protect the esophagus from damage by increasing mucus production.  Increased mucus production means increased stomach acid, which is what the digestive tract needs when experiencing reflux issues.  This supplement does come with a warning though, as it can be contraindicated in patients with high blood pressure.  So it should only be used sparingly or under the close supervision of an herbalist.

Marshmallow root is an herb that helps protect the stomach.  This herb contributes to increased mucus production, which helps to coat the esophagus to create a protective barrier against stomach acid.  So it works similarly to DGL without the blood pressure issue.  You can use marshmallow root in a tea form and ingest it before every meal.

Because reflux situations occur when the esophageal sphincter doesn’t function properly, it’s a good idea to take your time when eating.  Let’s face it, we all rush too much and mealtime is one of the areas that suffers the most.  We eat in our cars, while we’re driving, while we’re working, whenever we can squeeze it in and that’s not healthy.  Eating hastily contributes to many of these reflux issues, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Just set aside time to slowly enjoy your meals.  And if you can’t do that, utilize nutritional drinks or smoothies that are less difficult on the digestive tract.

If you suffer from chronic reflux issues, things like acupuncture can be very helpful.  Acupuncture helps to stop muscle spasms by sending proper electrical signals to the muscles.  If the esophageal sphincter is opening spontaneously or not closing properly, it could be that the signals from the brain to the muscle have gotten frayed or disconnected.  Acupuncture can actually help to rewire the neural pathways in the brain, which then helps to reprogram the muscle over time.

There are also Chinese herbal formulas that help relieve the gut dysbiosis that plagues so many people.  Gut dysbiosis means that there is an imbalance of microorganisms in the intestines.  Basically, there are more bad guys than good guys in your gut.  When this happens, excess biofilms can coat the intestinal tract, causing dysfunction and malabsorption.  Gut dysbiosis is very common and a big contributing factor to reflux issues.  But using herbs and adding in more fiber rich foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts) can make a big impact on your gut health.

Now that you know a little more about PPI’s, their side effects and also how to naturally address gastrointestinal reflux issues, it might be time to sideline those meds and use them sparingly.  If you have more questions about reflux issues and how East Asian Medicine can help, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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