Antacids Pose Unique Dangers for Seniors

pile of antacid tabletsAntacid drugs like Zantac, Pepcid, Prevacid and Nexium are among the most widely prescribed medications in the world.

However, physicians with Britain’s National Health Service are warning seniors of serious side effects associated with the drugs, especially as you get older.

Antacids are linked to an increased risk of gastrointestinal infections, while one category of the drugs, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), increase the risk of pneumonia.

PPIs are also associated with an increased risk of infection with the C. difficile bacterium, which is resistant to many antibiotics and can cause serious diarrheal illness.

The New York Times reported:

“Several studies also have shown an increased risk of bone fractures from osteoporosis in patients taking P.P.I.’s, though the results aren’t consistent. Possibly the change in stomach acidity reduces the body’s ability to absorb calcium.”

Despite being among the most widely prescribed medications in the world, antacids don’t get much scrutiny from doctors or patients.

“When patients were admitted to our geriatric wards, a lot of them didn’t have clear indications for taking these drugs,” said Dr. Ian Logan, a Scottish physician. “And they’ve remained on them for a lot longer than they should have.” One of his patients had been taking an acid reducer for 15 years.

“They do have significant side effects, especially in older patients,” Dr. Logan said. Studies have linked antacids to an increased risk of pneumonia, gastrointestinal infections, antibiotic resistance, severe diarrhea, and possibly osteoporosis.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Heartburn, acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease and other acid-related conditions are extremely common, and as a result acid-reducing drugs like Zantac, Pepcid, Prevacid and Nexium are among the most widely prescribed medications in the world.

Unfortunately, the drugs are so common that they’re handed out for countless cases of mild indigestion, heartburn and even for “preventive” measures. But these drugs are not only vastly overused … they’re very dangerous as well and in many cases will only make the underlying problem worse.

Acid-Reducers Common Among Seniors

If you have seen a conventional physician for any of the above complaints, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ve been offered an acid-reducing drug as a solution. Likewise, if you’ve been in the hospital recently, you may have even been given the drugs as a solely “preventive” measure.

In one study of 213 patients admitted to the University of Michigan Hospital, only 29 percent were taking acid-reducing drugs before they entered the hospital, but this rose to 70 percent upon admission. Further, half continued taking the drugs unnecessarily after they went home.

This is a serious problem, especially for seniors who are not only at an increased risk of the drugs’ side effects, but who may take the drugs for far longer than they should.

One Canadian study even found that use of the acid-reducing proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) rose 60 percent among seniors from 2001 to 2008, while also showing that an increasing number of the elderly were using the drugs for longer periods of time.

It’s not uncommon for seniors to remain on acid-reducing drugs for up to 15 years at a time, which could have devastating health consequences.

Why are Acid-Reducing Drugs Dangerous, Especially for Seniors?

It’s a two-fold problem beginning with the fact that proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are drugs that VERY effectively block your stomach’s ability to produce acid.

While that may sound like a good thing, in most cases it is the absolute worst approach possible for problems like heartburn and acid reflux, as typically with these conditions your stomach is producing too little stomach acid.

So taking these drugs will only WORSEN your condition.

According to Mitchell Katz, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health who wrote an editorial on this topic, PPIs are only warranted for the treatment of:

  • Bleeding ulcers
  • Infection with the ulcer-causing bacteria Helicobacter pylori
  • Zollinger-Ellison syndrome (a rare condition that causes your stomach to produce excess acid)
  • Severe acid reflux, where an endoscopy has confirmed that your esophagus is damaged

PPIs were never intended for people with heartburn, and according to Katz, "about 60 to 70 percent of people taking these drugs have mild heartburn and shouldn't be on them."

However, I believe the number may be even higher than that, because there are over 16,000 articles supporting the fact that suppressing stomach acid does NOT treat Helicobacter pylori infection, which Katz included above.

One of the explanations for this is that when you suppress the amount of acid in your stomach, you decrease your body’s ability to kill the helicobacter bacteria. So it actually makes your condition worse and perpetuates the problem.

Did Your Doctor Tell You About These Serious Side Effects?

PPIs are also touted as being completely safe, when in reality they carry steep risks. One of the primary concerns is that reducing acid in your stomach diminishes your primary defense mechanism for food-borne infections, which will increase your risk of food poisoning and also your risk of infection with Clostridium difficile, a harmful intestinal bacteria that is common in the elderly.

PPIs also increase the risk of other ailments that seniors are already at an increased risk for, making their risks exponentially higher:

  • Pneumonia
  • Bone loss
  • Hip fractures

The risk of a bone fracture has been estimated to be over 40 percent higher in patients who use these drugs long-term, which again applies to many seniors.

Additionally, if you fail to digest and absorb your food properly, which can occur if you suppress your stomach acid, you will not only increase your risk of stomach atrophy but also nearly every other chronic degenerative disease.

The drugs also lead to both tolerance and dependence on them, so unfortunately you can't stop taking them without suffering repercussions, which may be even worse than your original symptoms.

If you’re already taking a PPI, you'll want to get on a lower dose than you're on now, and then gradually decrease your dose even further. Once you get down to the lowest dose of the proton pump inhibitor, you can start substituting with an over-the-counter H2 blocker like Tagamet, Cimetidine, Zantac, or Raniditine.

Then gradually wean off the H2 blocker over the next several weeks while implementing the lifestyle strategies addressed below.

Safe, Natural Alternatives for Heartburn, Acid Reflux

Heartburn, acid reflux and GERD are examples of painful conditions that can be relieved in the majority of cases by making relatively simple lifestyle changes, including:

Consume Enough Probiotics

This will help balance your bowel flora, which can help eliminate helicobacter bacteria naturally. It will also aid in proper digestion and assimilation of your food.

Ideally, you'll want to get your probiotics from fermented foods. One of my favorites is natto, but there are many other food products that are excellent choices for natural probiotics, such as fermented vegetables and kefir, a fermented milk drink made from RAW milk.

Another option is taking a high-quality probiotic supplement. The one I use personally contains the Bacillus Coagulans strain, which has been proven highly effective. It's also the one we recommend in my Natural Health Center.

Eliminate Food Triggers

Food allergies can be a problem, so you'll want to completely eliminate items such as caffeine, alcohol, and all nicotine products.

Increase Your Body's Natural Production of Stomach Acid

Like I said earlier, heartburn/GERD is not caused by too much acid in your stomach -- it's usually a problem with too little acid. One of the simplest strategies to encourage your body to make sufficient amounts of hydrochloric acid (stomach acid) is to consume enough of the raw material.

One of the most basic food items that many people neglect is a high-quality sea salt (unprocessed salt), such as Himalayan salt. Not only will it provide you with the chloride your body needs to make hydrochloric acid, it also contains over 80 trace minerals your body needs to perform optimally, biochemically.

Take a Hydrochloric Acid Supplement

Another option is to take a betaine hydrochloric supplement, which is available in health food stores without prescription. You'll want to take as many as you need to get the slightest burning sensation and then decrease by one capsule.

This will help your body to better digest your food, and will also help kill helicobacter and normalize your symptoms.

Modify Your Diet 

Eating large amounts of processed foods and sugars is a surefire way to exacerbate acid GERD, as it will upset the bacterial balance in your stomach and intestine.

Instead, you'll want to eat a lot of vegetables, and high quality, organic, biodynamic, and locally grown foods.

Optimize Your Vitamin D levels

As I've mentioned many times in the past, vitamin D is essential, and it's essential for these conditions as well because there's likely an infectious component causing the problem.

Once your vitamin D levels are optimized, you're also going to optimize your production of 200 antimicrobial peptides that will help your body eradicate any infections that shouldn't be there.

You'll want to make sure your vitamin D level is about 60 ng/ml. You can increase your vitamin D levels through appropriate amounts of sun exposure, the use of a safe tanning bed, or, if neither of those are available, an oral vitamin D3 supplement.

For more natural tips, I would also encourage you to read natural health pioneer Dr. Jonathan Wright's excellent book Your Stomach: What is Really Making You Miserable and What to Do About It.

+ Sources and References