If you deal with heartburn or acid reflux daily, you may have grown accustomed to popping a few antacids when you start feeling heartburn coming on. Or maybe you’ve been leaning on proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) like Prilosec for longer than you’d like and are feeling some unpleasant side effects.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the multiple lawsuits brought against companies that manufacture popular PPIs that you happen to be taking.
Maybe it’s left you wondering: Are antacids harmful?
If you’re here because you’re wondering if it’s time to slow down and reevaluate, you’re in the right place. I’m going to talk about why we get heartburn in the first place, the difference between Tums and Prilosec, what they do to our bodies and minds, and alternatives to consider.
So if you’re constantly reaching for the antacids, keep reading to discover why they can be harmful to your health.
Why Do We Get Heartburn and Acid Reflux
Heartburn is a symptom of a larger issue that our body is trying to communicate to us. Most likely, our diet and lifestyle have come out of balance leading to poor gut health. The body wants homeostasis and is always working toward that. We often create an unbalanced environment in our gut through our choices that make it difficult for our bodies to keep us in that balance.
Another reason we may get heartburn is because of unknown and untreated food allergies or intolerances. There may be foods that our bodies can’t handle and it’s causing a reaction. It may be a good idea to get a blood test to figure what you might need to eliminate from your diet. It’s possible that by practicing an elimination diet under the supervision of a doctor or nutritionist, that you will be able to find what’s bothering you, heal your gut, and then be able to enjoy those foods again.
There’s a misconception that acid reflux is due to excess acid in the stomach, but this isn’t correct. Acid reflux happens when the esophageal sphincter malfunctions and stomach acid comes back up and we feel it burning the esophagus.
When this becomes a chronic issue, it’s called gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, which is very serious. It creates tissue damage and comes with a higher risk of cancer. The root causes of GERD are related to lifestyle and include anxiety or high stress, poor circulation, obesity, smoking, food allergies, and leaky gut.
This is different from occasional heartburn.
It sounds counterintuitive but a common reason we get heartburn is that we don’t have enough stomach acid to break down our food properly which results in gas.
When you have low stomach acid there are signals sent to the pyloric sphincter, which is the door at the bottom of the stomach to the small intestine, to stay closed. So your food is taking much longer to digest and your stomach churns more aggressively. This will also cause some splashing up to the esophagus causing a burning sensation. This is called hypochlorhydria and it’s a widespread problem.
You can probably start to see why taking antacids might be harmful if the problem is that we don’t have enough stomach acid in the first place.
What Do Antacids Do?
Antacids are products like Tums or Rolaids. They contain calcium and they neutralize your stomach acid. This is okay when you’re in a pinch and don’t often get heartburn. But if you find yourself taking them all the time, they are only covering up an underlying issue and you’re also harming yourself by weakening your stomach acid.
Stomach acid (or gastric acid) is made of hydrochloric acid and needs to remain at a pH of about 1.5 to 3.5. It needs to remain in this range in order to digest your food and to kill any potential pathogens that get in.
If your stomach acid is tested at a pH of 5 this means you have almost no hydrochloric acid and is called achlorhydria.
I just want to reiterate that we need stomach acid to be able to digest our food. Without it, we could become malnourished even if we’re eating a healthy diet. This is because our stomach acid is unable to break down the food enough to make the nutrients available to our cells and our gut bacteria.
H2 blockers such as Pepcid decrease the amount of stomach acid by inhibiting specific receptors in the stomach lining that release the acid. They are usually used to help heal peptic ulcers but are also used to ease symptoms of acid reflux. They come with a list of possible side effects similar to PPIs.
Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs)
It’s unfortunate that doctors rarely take the time to figure out if a patient has low stomach acid or if their stomach fluid has a high pH before prescribing PPIs. And often people don’t realize that low stomach acid could be the problem and are only causing further damage to their health by suppressing the heartburn symptom.
PPIs are similar to H2 blockers, but instead of reducing the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, they block it. So they are stronger and give more time to the esophagus to heal from damage. They don’t offer instant relief and you have to take them 30-60 minutes before a meal on a consistent basis as it may take 1 to 4 days to feel the effects, however, the results last longer than H2 blockers.
Some examples of PPIs are Prilosec, Prevacid, and Nexium.
The Harmful Effects of Antacids
The downside to taking PPIs is pretty huge considering the potential side effects:
- reduced immunity
- abdominal pain
- joint pain
- muscle weakness
- Inability to absorb nutrients from food
And there is a higher risk for:
- heart disease
- heart attack and stroke
- chronic kidney disease
- bone fracture
- acute interstitial nephritis
If you’ve been taking PPIs for a long time and are now convinced that you want to get off of them, there could be some associated withdrawal symptoms, and depending on your case it may not be possible right away, so again, create a plan with your doctor and work with a nutritionist.
Thousands of PPI lawsuits have been filed in federal court claiming the drugs were responsible for long-term kidney problems. This forced the FDA to put a warning label on these over-the-counter medications and to recommend that the smallest dose possible be taken or prescribed by a doctor.
The FDA has also mandated that labels carry a warning that PPIs can increase the risk of C. diff infections. C. diff or Clostridium difficile, is a bacterial infection that could be severe and even result in death. This infection is becoming more common in people who have just taken a round of antibiotics. Some symptoms include watery diarrhea and mild cramping for days and can turn quickly into a life-threatening situation if it becomes severe.
Do Antacids Cause Depression?
Hydrochloric acid in your stomach activates digestive enzymes that help you to absorb important vitamins such as B12. When you continue to change the pH of your stomach with antacids, reduce stomach acid production H2 blockers, or block stomach acid production with PPIs, you are also preventing vitamin absorption that could result in a vitamin deficiency.
And as I’ve mentioned in other posts, vitamin deficiencies play a role in our mood and can result in anxiety and depression.
Continuing to inhibit vitamin absorption is definitely harmful to our physical and mental health. It might be a good idea to get some blood work done to see if you’re deficient in vitamins and minerals if you’re also experiencing symptoms of depression. You could be low in Omega 3s, B vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, iodine, and others.
Heartburn, acid reflux, and certainly GERD can be serious so it’s up to you and your healthcare professionals to figure out what’s best for you regarding the use of powerful drugs.
Do you have low stomach acid? Or is the pH of the acid too high? Is it a malfunction of the esophageal sphincter? Do you have undiscovered food intolerances?
Once you know the real problem then you can make certain lifestyle changes that can heal your gut, reduce inflammation, and balance your stomach acid level and pH. I’ll write an article in the future about creating an elimination diet specifically for this.
I feel antacids are harmful to my health so I use apple cider vinegar to help me with occasional mild heartburn because it balances stomach acid. What helps you? Do you know the root cause of your heartburn or acid reflux? What have you been doing to help with the pain? Let us know in the comments!
This site is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please see our medical disclaimer.