Antacids are big business. In fact, they are among the most widely prescribed drugs in the United States. Consumers spend a whopping $20 billion each year on prescription antacids. Plus they spend another $3 billion on over-the-counter indigestion remedies. But is this money well spent? Are these products actually alleviating heartburn, or merely masking the symptoms of an underlying problem? And what are the side effects of these wildly popular drugs?

First, let’s discuss why people use antacids. Antacids are drugs that treat the symptoms of heartburn, indigestion, stomach upset, gas, reflux, or ulcers. They work by neutralizing stomach acid or preventing the production of stomach acid. While antacids may provide temporary relief of uncomfortable symptoms, consuming antacids is not a healthy solution. In fact, long-term use of antacids can cause a great deal more harm than good. Digestive discomfort is a clear indication that you may be eating too much, eating too often, eating the wrong foods, allowing stress to interfere with digestion, or a more serious condition. Making positive changes in your diet, lifestyle, and stress level is a much better long-term strategy.

The wide range of over-the-counter and prescription antacids on the market can be classified into three general categories: alkalizing agents, H2 blockers, and proton pump inhibitors. Alkalizing agents work by neutralizing acid produced by the stomach. H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors greatly suppress stomach acid production.

Neutralizing and/or suppressing stomach acid can cause many health problems. Insufficient stomach acid predisposes a person to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the gut, impaired digestion, and nutrient deficiencies, such as vitamin B12 and calcium. Poor calcium absorption increases the risk of bone fractures, and reduced absorption of vitamin B 12 may cause symptoms such as weakness, tiredness or light-headedness; rapid heartbeat and breathing; pale skin; sore tongue; easy bruising or bleeding, including bleeding gums; stomach upset and weight loss; diarrhea or constipation; and damaged nerve cells (if the deficiency is not corrected). In addition to calcium, several other minerals require stomach acid for absorption including iron, magnesium, zinc, and copper.

There are many effective natural strategies for heartburn and GERD including:

  • Increase fresh, whole, high-fiber foods such as vegetables and fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
  • Avoid refined sugar and flour, processed foods, artificial food additives, unhealthy fats, alcohol and soda.
  • Find your trigger foods. Acidic drinks and foods such as tomatoes and citrus are more likely to cause heartburn. Dairy products like high-fat milk, coffee, tea, high-fat, fried and spicy foods, onions, and chocolate can also trigger heartburn.
  • Reach and maintain your ideal body weight.
  • Eat small meals.
  • Eat your last meal at least four hours before bed.
  • Raise the head of your bed with a 6-inch beam if you have nighttime heartburn.
  • Check your hydrochloric acid levels.
  • Use enzyme therapy.
  • Stop smoking. Tobacco is irritating to the stomach.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Reduce stress levels with relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing.
  • Drink ginger tea for heartburn relief. Steep 1 ½ teaspoons of fresh ginger in a cup of boiling water for 10 minutes and drink. May be sweetened with a little raw honey.
  • Use DGL (Deglycyrrhizinated licorice).
  • Consider taking probiotics with meals. These products contain “friendly” bacteria that can stabilize the digestive tract.

Until next time, make every bite count!