The health of your digestive system is, in many ways, one of the cornerstones of overall health and vitality. When there is ongoing inflammation, or other issues affecting the normal function of your digestive tract, it paves the way for more serious health concerns that can affect your entire body, as well as mental and emotional well-being.  It really makes sense if you think about it, as this system is where we break down the foods we eat, absorb life-giving nutrients from that food, then get rid of metabolic wastes on the other end.  In some cases, the medications prescribed for digestive system issues may actually be compromising optimal physiologic function.

Currently on the top 5 list of most prescribed/used medications, estimated at over 15 million monthly prescriptions, is the drug Nexium, a class of stomach acid blocking drugs called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs).  This drug, and most of its cousins, are available over-the-counter, and are taken as relief from the common complaint of acid-reflux, known also as GERD, and most commonly described as “heartburn”.  This unpleasant set of symptoms is typically the result of stomach acid contents making its way past the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and causing the unpleasant burning sensation further up the esophagus.

So, take a daily drug that completely neutralizes the stomach acid, and problem solved, right?  Well, like so many prescriptive medications, this approach fails to address the underlying causes, the real reasons why this is happening in the first place, and compromises a very important function of the upper digestive tract.  The stomach contents are meant to be very acidic, as this is necessary for the beginning stages of food digestion.  Mineral absorption from mineral rich foods (or supplements) is severely compromised by a non-acidic stomach, and we know that long-term use of these medications is contributing to a host of more serious conditions.

High profile research studies are now confirming what holistic physicians have long known– long term use (more than 2 weeks) of this class of drugs is contributing to poor health, and in many cases serious diseases, further “downstream”.   Studies indicate an increased incidence of serious bone fractures (especially women) using PPIs, increased rates of mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and significant disturbances of the healthy and beneficial microbial gut flora, in some cases leading to dangerous C. difficile infections.

The medical establishment has long supported the use of these medications for the prevention of esophageal cancers in those affected with GERD.  A recently completed 12 year Danish study actually revealed though, that the more consistent patients were with daily use of their PPI meds, the higher the incidence of esophageal adenocarcinoma.  There is also evidence that long term use of these drugs may contribute to colon cancer.  As if this isn’t enough, some of you may have seen the recent news reports of increased rates of dementia in elderly using PPI medications.

As mentioned initially, the health of the digestive system is foundational to our overall health, so it is really no surprise that compromising it’s basic functions would have such dramatic effects.  More practically, though, if not PPI type medications, what to do about unpleasant, and in some cases debilitating acid reflux?  The universal answer is this:  Discover and address the underlying causes.

In most cases there are dietary triggers / food sensitivities that contribute to acid reflux.  The tone of the LES, and other structural issues may also be a factor, and believe it or not, mental/emotional issues sometimes contribute as well.  In many cases, particularly in elderly individuals, the problem can paradoxically be already-low stomach acidity that starts the reflux.

As you might imagine, it is ideal to have a holistic physician guide you through the process of weaning you off PPI meds– particularly if you have been on them for months or years– while also addressing all underlying causes.  When individuals try to quit too quickly, the stomach excitedly begins creating inordinate amounts of acid, causing very unpleasant rebound heartburn.  A measured and judicious weaning program is crucial for the successful removal of these drugs from your medicine cabinet.