It is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of Americans experience GERD symptoms every day. [source]
Acid-reducing drugs are among the most popular drugs on the market. The numbers of people taking Nexium and other acid-inhibiting drugs is staggering. Unfortunately, the medical community has it wrong. Reducing acid is NOT the answer.
Not only that, but when Nexium was first put on the market, it was recommended that people take it for no more than six weeks. (This is because some of its side effects are serious nutritional deficiencies which can lead to a host of more serious health problems, not the least of which is cancer.) Now people are put on Nexium and told it’s for life. TRUE STORY. That happened to me. At age 35, no less.
I have been wanting to write this story for some time, but I’ve been waiting until I was confident that I am truly cured of my GERD and gastritis. I can’t say I’m entirely cured. I still struggle from time to time with acid reflux symptoms, but I manage them naturally. And my debilitating stomach aches are gone, gone, gone!
I want people to know that medicine for these symptoms may not be the best answer, and there are better (safer!) ways to treat GERD and gastritis. I want people to know that these medicines aren’t as safe as they may think they are. I want people to know that they are actually addicting and can create a cycle of dependence that is hard to break.
The good news is, it IS possible to wean yourself off of acid-reducing drugs if you’re willing to do the work. There is a better way, and your doctor probably won’t tell you about it. Not that I’m in any way qualified to dish medical advice, so do your research and come to your own conclusions. I can only tell you what I’ve experienced. I just want you to know you have a choice.
After my third pregnancy, I was plagued by a variety of gastrointestinal ailments that I could never connect to a certain food or food group. I would get awful stomach aches out of the blue, often sending me to bed or to the couch until they passed. I went through a battery of tests, and was diagnosed with GERD (Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease), gastritis, and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) — what I affectionately call my gastrointestinal trifecta.
The stomach aches I had been having were blamed on gastritis. It is important to note that even though I had a GERD diagnosis, I was not having heartburn symptoms. The IBS I’d had off and on all my life, so that was nothing new.
After trying several H2 blockers (Google is your friend) without success, my doctor put me on Nexium, a proton pump inhibitor (again with the Google.) The Nexium kept the gastritis symptoms at bay for the most part, although I did have some trouble now and then. When I inquired about going off Nexium, my doctor assured me that I would probably be on it for the rest of my life, but no worries, he said. It’s harmless.
Something about that didn’t sit right with me. At 35 years old, I was being told I would be on Nexium for the rest of my life? And here’s the funny thing. When I accidentally missed a day of my Nexium, I would suddenly get heartburn symptoms. I hadn’t had heartburn symptoms before starting the Nexium; the Nexium was for gastritis, and that just seemed odd.
At one point, early on in my Nexium days, I tried going off it with horrible results. I stopped cold turkey (I’ve since learned you must wean off) and I have never been so sick as I was that week with gastritis attacks and heartburn symptoms. Again, it seemed odd that when I missed the Nexium, my symptoms were worse than they were before I started taking it, but I gave up and went back on it. For the next couple of years, I just went along with it, hoping some day to get some help but not knowing where to find it.
I even told my doctor about the symptoms I experienced when I missed my Nexium and inquired if it could be possible that my body was overcompensating for the acid-reducing meds, and both doctors who I asked immediately disregarded my concerns and said that wasn’t happening. That’s a bit of foreshadowing for you.
Then last summer, my tummy troubles started to get worse again, even with Nexium. I went to a new GI doctor and started a whole new round of testing, but nothing was discovered. Over the last four years, I have experienced just about every gastrointestinal test known to man. It. was. not. pleasant. And to make matters worse, they couldn’t turn up a reason for my symptoms.
The Turning of the Tide
Around that same time, I came upon Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. You probably know that story by now. We gradually began eating more whole foods and less processed foods and industrial oils. We moved to coconut oil and raw milk and grass-fed beef and pastured poultry and eggs.
Right about that time, I read this article by Dr. Mercola. Disclaimer: I take everything he writes with a grain of salt because he’s a bit of an alarmist. But this article hit home because I knew instinctively that he was right. It just made so much sense. Here’s a snippet (emphasis mine.)
In the study [source] above, more than 40 percent of healthy volunteers experienced heartburn, acid regurgitation and dyspepsia (pain and fullness in your abdomen) in the weeks after stopping the drugs. These were symptoms they did NOT have before!
It appears the drugs lead to “rebound acid hypersecretion,” which is an increase in gastric acid secretion above pre-treatment levels within two weeks of stopping the drugs.
Essentially, because these drugs slam the brakes on the acid-producing pumps in your stomach, when you stop taking them that built-up acid can be unleashed with a vengeance.
Meanwhile, studies show that up to 33 percent of people taking PPIs continue to refill their prescriptions without an apparent need for them. Could it be that many of these people continue to refill their prescriptions because they have severe withdrawal symptoms each time they run out… and are assuming they need MORE of the drug to help them?
This is a vicious cycle — one that can easily lead to tolerance and dependency on these drugs.
That was my experience EXACTLY. This article by Harvard Medical School backs up Mercola’s claims and points out that PPI meds can inhibit your body from absorbing calcium and B12. Harmless, huh? I don’t know about you, but that’s not exactly what I consider harmless. B12 deficiency and bone loss both run in my family. I knew then and there I wanted off this medicine and ASAP.
I started reading about how to manage GERD and gastritis naturally, starting with Mercola’s article and then whatever I found by googling the topic. I decided to try to go off Nexium again, but this time I did it right. (You have to wean yourself off, and then you have to implement a lifestyle modification program to help your body heal.) I’d already learned from experience that carbs trigger my heartburn symptoms, so I started drastically reducing my carb and sugar intake.
For a few weeks I stopped drinking wine and reduced my coffee to one a day, and I watched my portion sizes (over eating exacerbates the problem too.)
I ate a lot of apples (they naturally help your food digest.) It helped that I did this last fall when apples were fresh, crisp, sweet and delicious.
I took vitamin D3 supplements, and I was already on probiotics as recommended by my GI doctor. I can always tell when I miss a few days of probiotics; I start to get bloated after meals.
After going off Nexium back in October, I had one or two gastritis stomach aches, and none for the past few months. I still experience mild heartburn if I eat too many carbs, but as long as I watch my carbs and sugars, I’m fine there too.
I have been Nexium-free for six months and with my low-carb, whole foods eating habits, I haven’t felt this good in years. Not only do I feel better, but I’m saving the time and money that I was spending on doctor visits and uncomfortable medical tests and being incapacitated with stomach aches. I will gladly spend that money on better food for our family and that time on making things from scratch.
A couple of months ago, I found a doctor (an M.D.) who takes a holistic approach to health care. She has given me more tips to stimulate and improve my digestion naturally. She recommends taking Swedish bitters and digestive enzymes with meals, which I do sporadically. She also recommended mixing a Tbsp raw apple cider vinegar in 8 oz of water and drinking that daily, but I tried it once and I just can’t stomach it. I’m doing okay without it, thankfully.
I recently discovered a series of posts about heartburn and GERD by The Healthy Skeptic where he links GERD to the over consumption of carbs and sugars which causes bacterial overgrowth in the stomach. As I’ve followed this series of articles, I find myself enthusiastically nodding my head in agreement because everything he says makes total sense based on my personal experience.
With permission, I am reprinting the conclusion to Chris’s series of articles on heartburn and GERD. This sums it up perfectly, in my opinion. Emphasis is mine.
The mainstream medical approach to treating heartburn and GERD involves taking acid stopping drugs for as long as these problems occur. Unfortunately, because these drugs not only don’t address the underlying cause of these problems but may make it worse, this means that people who start taking antacid drugs end up taking them for the rest of their lives.
This is a serious problem because acid stopping drugs promote bacterial overgrowth, weaken our resistance to infection, reduce absorption of essential nutrients, and increase the likelihood of developing IBS, other digestive disorders, and cancer. The manufacturers of these drugs have always been aware of these problems. When acid-stopping drugs were first introduced, it was recommended that they not be taken for more than six weeks. Clearly this prudent advice has been discarded, as it is not uncommon today to encounter people who have been on these drugs for decades – not weeks.
What is especially disturbing about this is that heartburn and GERD are easily prevented and cured by making simple dietary and lifestyle changes, as I have outlined in this final article.
Unfortunately, the corruption of our “disease-care” system by the financial interests of the pharmaceutical companies virtually guarantees that this crucial information will remain obscure. Drug companies make more than $7 billion a year selling acid suppressing medications. The last thing they want is for doctors and their patients to learn how to treat heartburn and GERD without these drugs. And since 2/3 of all medical research is sponsored by drug companies, it’s virtually guaranteed that we won’t see any large studies on the effects of a low-carb diet on acid reflux and GERD.
So once again it’s up to us to discover the truth and be our own advocates.
Please know that I have no desire to bash the medical and pharmaceutical communities. I have dear friends and family employed by both, and I don’t believe anyone is out to perpetuate this vicious cycle and harm countless American citizens. But the fact remains, it is not lucrative to promote holistic health care methods, and we as a culture seem content to treat the symptoms rather than the cause. I just wish people realized the quality of life they COULD have.
This post is for those of you who are where I was a couple years ago. You want a better quality of life, but you aren’t sure how to get it. If it’s helpful to just one person, it’s worth telling my story.
Disclosure: I am not a medical professional. Please do your research, consult a qualified health professional, and come to your own conclusions. And feel free to share. I just want people to know they have a choice.
NOTE (May 2013): I have since written an update to my situation. You can read that here: Epilogue
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