By Dr. Mark Hyman

Are millions of us born with a genetic defect that makes us produce too much stomach acid? Do we just have a major evolutionary design flaw that requires us to take powerful acid-blocking drugs to prevent heartburn and reflux?

I believe that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “no.”

In this blog, I’ll explain why, but more importantly, I will outline a simple 3-step approach that will help you prevent acid reflux and heartburn by treating its underlying causes.

The Truth about Acid-Blocking Medications

At least 10 percent of Americans have episodes of heartburn every day, and 44 percent have symptoms at least once a month. Overall, reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as heartburn) affects a whopping 25 to 35 percent of the US population! (i) As a result, acid-blocking medications are the third top-selling type of drug in America today. Two other drugs to treat reflux, Nexium and Prevacid, are among the world’s best-selling drugs(ii) and account for $5.1 and $3.4 billion in sales annually (in 2006)!

Things have certainly changed since I was in medical school. In those days, GERD wasn’t even considered a serious disease. Instead, people had heartburn or ulcers, but that was pretty much it. When acid-blocking drugs first came on the market, even the pharmaceutical representatives warned us how powerful these drugs were. They told us not to prescribe them any longer than 6 weeks and only for patients with documented ulcers.

Now, these drugs are given like candy to anyone who ate too many hot dogs at a ball game—and one drug, Prilosec, is available without a prescription. Their manufacturers have created the illusion that we can eat whatever we want with no consequences, just by popping a pill. They even have commercials showing a family rushing to stop their father from eating a big sausage with fried onions and peppers — and he tells them not to worry because he took his acid-blocking pill!

I know someone who used to work for the makers of Pepcid, another acid blocker. He told me that when it first became available over the counter, teams of drug company representatives would stand at the gates of county fairs and southern barbeques and hand out free samples.

In reality, acid-blocking drugs are a double-edged sword. Let’s look at some of the recent research on the dangers of these drugs.

What the Research Tells Us about Acid-Blocking Medications

Acid blocking drugs obviously block acid that can cause symptoms of heartburn and reflux. But your body actually needs stomach acid to stay healthy. Stomach acid is necessary to digest protein and food, activate digestive enzymes in your small intestine, keep the bacteria from growing in your small intestine, and help you absorb important nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B12.

There’s evidence that taking these medications can prevent you from properly digesting food, cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and lead to problems like irritable bowel syndrome, depression, hip fractures, and more.

For example, studies show that people who take acid-blocking medications for the long term can become deficient in vitamin B12,(iii) which can lead to depression, anemia, fatigue, nerve damage, and even dementia, especially in the elderly.

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