- Functional Medicine -

The Problem With Acid-Blocking Drugs

Senior editor Anjula Razdan on how acid-blocking drugs can lead to a vitamin B12 deficiency.

Yesterday’s news that acid-blocking drugs can lead to a vitamin B12 deficiency and should not be used long-term, is, well, yesterday’s news to us here at Experience Life. Back in 2008, we published a series of health articles by functional-medicine whiz Mark Hyman, MD, including a piece on digestive health that took on the dangers of acid-blocking drugs. Here’s what Dr. Hyman had to say on vitamin B12 deficiency and more:

 Are millions of us born with a genetic defect that makes us produce too much stomach acid? Do we need powerful, acid-blocking drugs to prevent heartburn and reflux?

Or, could something simply be out of balance?

Consider this: At least 10 percent of Americans have episodes of heartburn every day, and 44 percent have symptoms at least once a month. Overall, reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, also known as heartburn) affects 25 to 35 percent of the U.S. population.

Fast on the heels of Lipitor and Plavix (drugs for cholesterol and heart disease), acid-blocking drugs are the fourth top-selling pharmaceutical in America’s $286 billion drug market. In fact, three of the drugs to treat reflux — Nexium, Protonix and Prevacid — are in the top 20 best-selling drugs, accounting for some $13 billion in sales annually.

When I was a medical student and these drugs first came on the market, the pharmaceutical representatives warned us how powerful they were. They told us not to prescribe them for any longer than six weeks and only for patients with documented ulcers.

Now, these drugs are given like candy to anyone who has had too many hot dogs at a ballgame. And one drug, Prilosec, whose patent expired, is now available without a prescription. I’ve even seen a commercial showing a family rushing to stop their father from eating a big sausage with fried onions and peppers — and he tells them not to worry because he took his acid-blocking pill!

So, why are these drugs so bad? Well, their supposedly “good” effect — shutting down stomach acid — is actually a bad effect. Stomach acid is necessary to digest food, to activate digestive enzymes in your small intestine, to prevent bacterial overgrowth in your small intestine, and to help you absorb important minerals like calcium and magnesium and vitamins like B12.

Research indicates that taking these drugs can prevent you from properly digesting your food, cause mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and lead to irritable bowel, depression, hip fractures, and more. For example, studies show that people who take long-term acid-blocking medications can become deficient in vitamin B12, which can lead to depression, anemia, fatigue, nerve damage and even dementia, especially in the elderly.

Studies also show that taking these drugs can cause dangerous overgrowth of bad bacteria in the intestine, which can lead to life-threatening infections. For many more people, low-grade overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine leads to bloating, gas, abdominal pain and diarrhea — which, by the way, are many of the common “side effects” noted in the label warnings for these drugs.

The funny thing is, back in my medical school days, GERD was not even on the radar as a significant illness. Some people had heartburn, and then there were people with ulcers. For the most part, that was it.

The upshot? It’s my view that drug companies invent diseases to create markets for their products. It is absurd to think that humans can’t feel good and live with normally functioning digestive tracts without help from powerful drugs with dangerous side effects.

These drugs may occasionally be necessary for short-term use, but if we deal with the root causes of digestive imbalances (as the practice of functional medicine suggests), reflux and other acid-related conditions usually can be managed without medication.

So, that’s the bad news. The good news, however, is that if you deal with the underlying causes of digestive trouble and bring your gut back into balance, you will not need to rely on medications that do you more harm than good. For more on how to achieve real digestive wellness, see Dr. Hyman’s full article Functional Wellness, Part 3: Digestive Health.

 

Anjula Razdan is an Experience Life senior editor. 

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