Recent research suggests that antacids, which are the world’s most popular drugs, can double the risk of pneumonia. This is because these drugs suppress gastric acids allowing viruses and bacteria in the upper GI tract to migrate into the respiratory tract. The study’s findings were similar for proton pump inhibitors and H2 antagonists, both of which lower acid production in the stomach. (The Dutch researchers want doctors to avoid prescribing antacids to elderly patients, particularly those with a history of respiratory problems.)
As well as digesting food in the stomach, the acid acts as a natural defensive barrier that kills pathogens that we ingest with our food. The weakening of stomach acid with antacids allows viruses and bacteria to pass down into the gut, where they can cause a wide range of IBS-like symptoms, such as diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, wind and abdominal pain.
Antacids are thought by the medical profession to have no serious side effects, and so are freely available over the counter, and used for heartburn and reflux as well as stomach and duodenal ulcers. Those with magnesium in them are available only on prescription; these may have a laxative effect, while those made with aluminium may cause constipation. Aluminium hydroxide should be taken in moderation because the aluminium can enter the blood stream, and there may be a link with osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s, particularly if it is taken for a long time. For all that, antacids generally have fewer side effects than the newer generation of anti-reflux drugs (or histamine-2 receptor antagonists, as they’re formally known) like ranitidine and omeprazole. H2 blockers are used to treat stomach and duodenal ulcers, especially those due to arthritis painkillers like non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs. Also prescribed to relieve heartburn and indigestion, they are known to cause insomnia, depression, blurred vision, severe headaches, irregular heartbeat, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, hepatitis and other liver disorders and, rarely, impotence or blood disorders. Omeprazole can cause chest pain, liver failure, mental disturbances, stomach pain and, again, nausea and vomiting. Proton pump inhibitors are also considered benign, but require a prescription. The most common side effects are diarrhoea, nausea, constipation, flatulence, abdominal pain and headaches.
Paradoxically, neutralising stomach acid only causes the stomach to produce more to compensate, which means you continue to take the stuff indefinitely. It also tends to reduce the availability of digestive enzymes, so you don’t digest your food as well as you should. This allows undigested proteins to proceed into the gut, producing toxic amines that act as a substrate for bad bacteria, encouraging them to proliferate. These toxic amines have also been linked with carcinogens in the gut.
The term ‘heartburn’ is an umbrella term for common gastro-intestinal discomfort variously described as indigestion, fullness, gaseousness, abdominal distension, burning pain in the upper abdomen, chest or behind the breastbone. It is common for heartburn to have a burning quality to the pain, hence the name. Mild heartburn is annoying, but severe heartburn can be frightening, feeling as if a hole is being burned through your stomach.
There are a number of potential causes of heartburn. Common causes of heartburn that are easy to remedy are overeating, eating too fast, drinking too many caffeinated drinks, eating too much refined carbohydrate and smoking. Also avoid carrageenan, a seaweed used as a food stabiliser. Other more complex causes of heartburn can be various medicines (hormones as in the birth control pill, progesterone, diazepam and nitroglycerine).
Persistent heartburn from a particular food may indicate an allergy to that food. Food allergies stimulate histamine release, which stimulates stomach acid production. The most common offenders are dairy products, wheat, eggs, corn, beef, soy and some citrus fruits. Using a non-aluminium natural alternative for heartburn and reflux, like Refluxin, which forms a foamy raft on top of the stomach’s contents to avoid reflux may be preferable. Infection with the bug Helicobacter pylori in the stomach may cause heartburn and ulcer type pains. Doctors think that H. pylori may be the cause of up to 95% of stomach and duodenal ulcers. If you think this is a possibility, you can ask your GP for a blood test. The natural remedies Helicobactrin, Colostrum, and Lactoferrin all have a good track record with H. pylori, and do not give the negative side effects associated with the traditional medicines detailed above.
Sufferers of duodenal ulcers may find drinking a large glass of tepid water half an hour before eating helpful. This allows the production of alkaline compounds in the duodenum, which act as a natural barrier to the acid as the stomach empties into the duodenum.