A study from Stanford University suggests that the long-term use of certain types of medications used to treat a range of symptoms associated with acid reflux disease can increase one’s risk of having a heart attack.
These medications, known as Proton Pump Inhibitors or PPIs, include the brand-names Prevacid, Nexium, and Prilosec, and are the strongest medications available to counter the effects of excess stomach acid. They are prescribed to both prevent and treat ulcers, and to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). PPIs currently account for over 10 billion dollars in health care costs annually and are among the most widely prescribed class of medications in the United States.
This is the age of big data, and for researchers this means the ability to “mine” through enormous amounts of information to find patterns or relationships between variables. In the medical field specifically, researchers can use this data-mining method to find correlations between medications and their possible side-effects. For the purpose of the Stanford study, the focus was heartburn medications and cardiovascular risk.
After analyzing millions of medical records, researchers found that there was indeed a relationship between the two variables; people who used a PPI as part of their treatment for GERD had a slightly elevated risk of suffering a myocardial infarction, commonly known as a heart attack. Furthermore, they found that this risk did not apply to patients who used another class of heartburn medications, called H2 blockers, which include brand names such as Pepcid or Zantac.
While the results of this new study may be of concern to those currently taking PPIs, it is not necessarily a red flag to immediately stop taking that medication. Some people who are prescribed a PPI may have a pre-existing condition that can cause an increased risk of having a heart attack. For example, obesity, alcohol consumption, and smoking are all risk factors for heart disease, and have all individually been shown to increase symptoms of acid reflux and GERD in clinical trials. These lifestyle factors must be taken into consideration. The bottom line is that one must always assess the actual risks and benefits of any medical intervention, and explore other possible interventions, before starting any medication.
6 Ways to Improve Acid Reflux Symptoms Naturally and Stay Heart Healthy
- Change your diet: Keeping a healthy weight is not only better for your heart, it’s better for controlling heartburn too! Spicy, fatty, or acidic foods can trigger heartburn so avoiding these types of foods makes a difference. Try eating smaller meals more frequently, cutting back on your caffeine intake, and don’t eat close to bedtime. Also, talk to your doctor about supplements such as deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) & high-dose melatonin – two supplements that we prescribe to our patients at the Center with great results.
- Get tested for SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth): Normally, the small intestine contains relatively few bacteria. Most intestinal bacteria is confined to the large intestine. A bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine can cause symptoms such as bloating, gas and abdominal pain. It also interferes with normal digestion and absorption of food, and can cause damage to the lining or membrane of the small intestine, which ironically can also be caused by prolonged use of an acid-suppressing medication. SIBO can often be an underlying cause of GERD and other gastrointestinal conditions – if you test positive for SIBO, treatment includes dietary modifications as well as probiotic supplementation, and in some cases, an antibiotic.
- Cut back on alcohol consumption: Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can cause high blood pressure, a major risk factor for having a heart attack. While the research remains inconsistent on alcohol consumption as a cause of GERD, some studies have demonstrated that alcohol can contribute to its progression. If alcohol aggravates your GERD, your doctor may recommend that you limit or avoid consumption.
- Keep exercising: If you have heartburn or GERD you may notice that intense exercise can worsen your symptoms. Don’t let this keep you away from physical activity! Exercise is essential for optimal health and it’s particularly important in maintaining a healthy heart. For GERD sufferers, the trick is to find the right balance for your body to keep your symptoms at bay. Avoid physical activity after eating, and try less jarring activities. Exercises that put your abs to work, like running, biking, and weightlifting, have been found to trigger symptoms more frequently because of stomach contractions, so these are good ones to avoid.
- Quit smoking, today: Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease. It can damage the cells that line the blood vessels, causing them to thicken and narrow, thereby allowing clots to form, which can in turn block blood flow to the heart. A study published in Gut shows that cigarette smoking can also increase the occurrence of acid reflux. If you have tried independently to quit smoking but have not been able to kick the habit, talk to your doctor today about cessation programs and support groups in your community.
- Try acupuncture or meditation: Alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and meditation, are both immune boosters and stress reducers that have consistently shown that they can improve GERD symptoms in patients.