Not many people would think that the two are related, but a study in a 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that long-term use of proton-pump-inhibitors (medications like Nexium, Prilosec and Prevacid) leads to increased rates of broken bones & hip fractures, especially in those prone to osteoporosis. Even better, the longer one takes these types of drugs, the higher the risk of fracture. This is truly disturbing since many doctors recommend that patients stay on these medications FOR LIFE! Even without such a recommendation from their doctor, many people stay on these drugs because they find that if they try to stop them, their heartburn comes back with a vegenance. Hence, “the little purple pill” has earned the nickname “Purple Crack.”
This, of course, is because the medications DO NOT CURE THE CAUSE of the heartburn but rather only MASK THE SYMPTOMS. If you remember from Chemistry 101, acids are characterized by the presence of the H+ ion, which is a hydrogen ion, also known as a proton. I’ll spare you the biochemistry, but all these heartburn medications do is block the enzyme in the cells of the stomach lining that make this proton, hence they are called proton-pump inhibitors. Think of these enzymes like an assembly line in factory where there is a certain quota of product to make in a specific time frame. If the factory has to stop the assembly line temporarily, once it starts back up again, it will have to run faster for a bit in order to turn out more product and make up for the lost time. This is essentially what happens when a person tries to stop taking these drugs. The body gets the message that there is not enough acid to digest the food, so the cells of the stomach start turning out acid protons double-time to make up for it. When the heartburn pain comes back, the patient goes right back to the meds.
As for how this leads to broken bones & hip fractures, you have to know that calcium needs an acidic environment to be absorbed. Read that again. Yes, this means that if you are taking Tums, an antacid, for calcium you are just wasting your money. It also means that if you take a medication that blocks the manufacture of stomach acid you won’t be able to absorb calcium, hence the inceased risk of broken bones & hip fractures. This is also why the longer you take these meds, the bigger your risk.
The greater irony in all of this however, is what causes heartburn in the first place. Heartburn is not caused by too much acid, but rather too little acid. You need this acid to digest your food. It is completely normal for our levels of acid to decrease as we age. If, as we get older, we reach a critically low level of acid in our stomachs, we do not digest our food fully and it can be left to essentially rot and putreify in our bodies. This process produces a variety of organic acids that may in turn cause the burning and refluxing experienced as ‘heartburn.’
The good news is that this problem can be treated at its root. Taking a supplement of digestive enzymes with a meal, like Zypan from Standard Process, is a great place to start. Also, having your zinc levels checked can be important as your stomach cells need zinc in order to be able to make acid in the first place. In some people, a hiatal hernia, where parts of the stomach begin to come up through the diaphragm, may cause heartburn symptoms. In very bad cases these can be seen on x-rays and need surgery to be repaired, but more times then not, this will not show up on any tests. These less obvious hiatal hernias can be treated through a simple manual manipulation.
With these simple remedies, there is no reason to stay stuck in the wheel when dealing with heartburn. Heartburn doesn’t have to lead to a lifelong script for meds and then another lifelong script for osteoporosis medications. Its cause can be easily and effectively treated.
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