There’s nothing like a crisp new calendar to hang on your kitchen or office wall to fill you with anticipation for the year to come. The entire upcoming year, like the calendar, is ready for you to fill it with new goals, resolutions and dreams. You probably have fitness goals, personal goals, professional goals, and health goals on your list of New Year’s Resolutions, and now is the time to put those good intentions into action.
When it comes to health goals, it may be time to look at your medicine cabinet and analyze some of the over-the-counter medication you have been taking in the past year. If you have heartburn and reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), you may have been treating your symptoms with proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). PPIs are the most commonly prescribed class of medication for the treatment of heartburn and acid-related disorders. Quite simply, PPIs reduce the amount of acid in your stomach by blocking the acid-producing glands in the stomach. Reduced acid production gives damaged esophageal tissue time to heal, and most cases of esophagitis can be cured by PPI use.
Today, several PPIs such as Omeprazole (Prilosec) and lansoprazole (Prevacid), can be purchased over-the-counter (OTC) at almost any grocery store or drug store. These medications are inexpensive and accessible, which initially sounds like a cost-saving benefit. However, this means that millions of Americans are relying on PPIs to control their symptoms of heartburn without the counsel of a physician.
Many individuals who are taking OTC versions of PPIs are not using these medications as directed on Drug Facts label, which reads that proton pump inhibitors should only be used as directed for 14 days for the treatment of frequent heartburn. Recent studies show that long-term usage of PPIs can have some very dangerous side effects. While the most common side effects of prolonged PPI usage are headaches, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating, there are several side effects that can be extremely dangerous to your health such as:
- Improper absorption of vitamins and minerals
- Nutrition deficiency
- Hypocalcemia—low calcium levels that can cause osteoporosis and fractures
- Low vitamin B12—body cannot absorb the vitamin without stomach acid to uncouple the vitamin from protein in food
- Pneumonia—because of the lower acidity in the stomach, bacteria are more likely to proliferate and can travel up the esophagus and into the trachea and cause pneumonia
- Clostridium difficile (C. diff)—bacterium capable of causing life-threatening cases of diarrhea (10 bowel movements a day) and conditions like colitis, an inflammation of the lining of the colon
- Increased risk of dementia in seniors
If you have been relying on PPIs to control your symptoms of heartburn, it’s time to throw out those bottles and call your doctor. Occasional reflux can usually be treated using antacids like Tums, Maalox, Rolaids, or Mylanta. Your doctor will be able to suggest specific medications and treatments, which may include some lifestyle modifications that can help relieve your symptoms as well. They may include:
- Avoiding trigger foods—Chocolate, coffee, citrus fruits and juices, peppermint, soft drinks, fried foods, spicy foods, and caffeine are common trigger foods that can initiate the familiar burn of GERD. Choosing to not eat these foods could make a significant difference in your symptoms.
- Quitting smoking—Tobacco found in cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chew, and snuff can exacerbate heartburn, and they are dangerous to your overall health.
- Start chewing gum—Chewing gum increases the production of saliva which can soothe a raw esophagus and keep stomach acid where it belongs- in the stomach.
- Elevating the head of your bed—Just a few inches of elevation can prevent stomach acid from creeping into the esophagus while you sleep.
- Wearing loose-fitting clothing—Tight-fitting shirts or pants with restrictive waistlines can trigger heartburn. Loose, comfortable clothing will relieve pressure on your lower esophageal sphincter.
Call your doctor to make an appointment to talk about your heartburn symptoms and get some relief. Diet and lifestyle modifications, along with occasional antacids, may be sufficient to manage your symptoms. However, if you have been suffering from reflux for an extended period of time, you may need an upper endoscopy. An upper endoscopy will allow your doctor to view the tissues of your throat, esophagus and digestive system to prescribe the best course of treatment.
Start off the New Year by tossing those over-the-counter medications and calling your doctor. This could be the beginning of the best year for your digestive health!