GERD and Heartburn Meds Are Not Meant For Lifetime Use

Roughly 20-30 % of the population suffers from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), commonly called heartburn. (1) The conventional treatment is to reduce stomach acid with an antacid medication - usually either a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) or H2 blocker.

It surprises many patients taking one of these medications to learn that they were developed for use of 6 weeks or less in mind. What happens when you have been taking it for years though?

Research studies have shown that:

  • Your risk of C. Diff infection increases. (2)
  • Your risk of heart attack increases. (3)
  • Your risk of dementia increases. (4,5) 

This is a frustrating reality, that the science is only beginning to uncover all the details of. In the meantime...

Isn't there a better way to treat GERD?

I certainly believe so.

One of the primary ideals of naturopathic medicine is a dedication to the "therapeutic order". Jumping right to medication is often not the right course of action for creating health. Following therapeutic order means starting with the gentlest and least expensive options first and scale up only as far as necessary to get results for the patient. (FYI - the gentlest and least expensive options are usually your diet and lifestyle.)

For therapeutic order to work, it also means finding the root cause of why a patient has heartburn/GERD in the first place, and then working to heal the patient from that understanding. It's opposite to what you'd think, but for many people, the underlying cause of the GERD/heartburn symptoms is actually not enough stomach acid!

Heartburn: A short biology lesson

The lower esophageal sphincter is a circular muscle at the bottom of your esophagus. It marks the barrier between the esophagus and the stomach. It opens and closes in response to the acid levels in the stomach. The more acid in the stomach, the tighter it closes, in order to protect the sensitive tissues from the burning effects stomach acid. Not enough acid means not enough closure of the sphincter. That means the relatively weak acid (which is still pretty acidic) can "splash" upward into the esophagus.

So, by this logic, you can see how an antacid may provide symptomatic relief but only begets more of the underlying problem. It also explains why patients end up taking the medication for years, because every time they try to come off it, a flare up of symptoms arises as their stomach acid levels start climbing again and they resume the medication.

A Naturopathic Approach

The approach I take with patients suffering simple heartburn/GERD is to have them stop the antacid medication and start building stomach acid levels quickly. This is a short process and often doesn't cause symptoms during the transition. You can read about one strategy in this blog post: Got Heartburn? Try This No-Cost Trick

That said, if your case is not simple - meaning:
you are taking additional medications which necessitated the antacid in the first place, and/or
you have multiple ongoing conditions which are being managed via your healthcare provider
Then you really need to speak to a Naturopathic Doctor to get help in navigating your way back to health. Medically trained ND's work alongside and complementary to conventional MD's. It's not an either/or world anymore. This is a both/and world we live in, and you deserve to benefit from the combination of both natural and pharmacologic approaches in your journey to optimal health. If you have questions or would like to speak to me about your health situation, please reach out via phone or email. (Clinic Info)

As always, I hope this information has served you.



  1. El-Serag HB, Sweet S, Winchester CC, Dent J. Update on the epidemiology of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease: a systematic review. Gut. 2014;63(6):871-80. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2012-304269.
  2. Mezoff EA, Cohen MB. Acid suppression and the risk of Clostridium difficile infection. J Pediatr. 2013;163(3):627-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2013.04.047.
  3. Shah NH, LePendu P, Bauer-Mehren A, et al. Proton pump inhibitor usage and the risk of myocardial infarction in the general population. PLoS One. 2015;10(6):e0124653. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0124653.
  4. Wijarnpreecha K, Thongprayoon C, Panjawatanan P, Ungprasert P. Proton pump inhibitors and risk of dementia. Ann Transl Med. 2016;4(12):240. doi: 10.21037/atm.2016.06.14.
  5. Gomm W, von Holt K, Thomé F, et al. Association of proton pump inhibitors with risk of dementia: a pharmacoepidemiological claims data analysis. JAMA Neurol. 2016;73(4):410-16. doi: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2015.4791.
  6. Photo Credit: Background photo to this post generously provided by Adi Chrisworo on Unsplash

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