In the U.S., heartburn has been on the rise for years, but scientists aren’t quite sure why. Is it because of the amount of coffee and alcohol Americans drink? Is it due to consumption of acidic food? Maybe too much garlic? Too much grease?
While the exact triggers of heartburn and gastrointestinal reflux disorder (or GERD) are still not precisely known, one thing is now becoming more and more clear: the common over-the-counter drugs called proton-pump inhibitors, or PPIs, that many people take to curb the effects of heartburn, don’t help everyone. In fact, they just may cause even more harm than good.
Texas researchers released a study May 10th in the medical journal Circulation Research demonstrating that, in their lab tests, certain heartburn medications accelerated the “aging” of blood cells. This raises concerns in the scientific community about the long-term effects of such drugs on one’s overall heart health.
So-called PPIs treat heartburn by blocking acid-producing cells in the lining of the stomach – but the new research suggests that they might also interfere with acid-producing cells elsewhere in the body, too, which is potentially very dangerous.
Just How Might PPI Heartburn Medications Harm Someone?
Previous studies have linked people who regularly use proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) with an increased risk of heart disease. The new lab results raise similar concerns: blood vessel cells exposed to the antacid Nexium® (esomeprazole) exhibited faster aging. What does that mean, exactly? The increased “aging” of these cells – many of which are in one’s arteries – just might hamper the tasks that these cells need to perform in order to stave off severe heart problems. So, in short, the findings are not to be taken lightly.
The study’s senior author Dr. John Cooke of Houston Methodist Hospital had this to say about the lab results:
“Our finding that the lining of blood vessels is impaired by proton pump inhibitors is a unifying mechanism for the reports that PPI users are at increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and renal failure.”
Cooke also noted that if PPIs were being taken in accordance with the FDA guidelines, meaning a 4-week course of treatment for 3 times per year, the drugs might be – generally speaking – safe. But, Cooke warned that the opposite is happening, that “they are being used ubiquitously, for long periods of time. They aren’t being used as originally approved.”
In Los Angeles, Dr. P.K. Shah, director of the Oppenheimer Atherosclerosis Research Center said that Dr. Cooke’s findings echo what the research on PPIs has been saying for some time now: that there should be suspicion when it comes to heartburn meds – that there’s a good chance they are bad for you if used for long periods of time.
Nexium® Isn’t the Only Potentially Dangerous Heartburn Medication
Though the researchers who conducted the study used Nexium® in their tests, the AstraZeneca medication isn’t the only common PPI on the market. The drug class also includes Prilosec®, Protonix®, and Prevacid® – all of which are purchasable at your local pharmacy.
AstraZeneca did respond with a statement noting that the study was conducted in a laboratory setting, “not in humans within a controlled clinical trial. Therefore, conclusions around cause and effect cannot be made.”
The other prominent class of over-the-counter heartburn medications, H2 blockers, which are molecularly different to PPIs, did not have the same aging effect on blood vessels, according to Dr. Cooke’s findings. H2 blockers include popular medications like Pepcid AC® (famotidine), Zantac® (ranitidine), and Tagamet® (cimetidine).
Moving Forward with Heartburn Meds… Cautiously
While the study’s findings are certainly important, a lot of work – including well-designed and thorough clinical trials – will need to be conducted before a definitive line can be drawn from regular PPI usage and deadly, heart-health problems.
Still, regardless of whether a person is using a PPI or an H2 blocker to treat their heartburn, they should always exercise caution. In today’s age of Big Pharma, when large, pharmaceutical and medical-device companies are often in the market to take advantage of Americans in order to score monster profits, people should always ask questions and be skeptical, especially when putting something – a pill – into their bodies.
In an interview with CBS News, chief of gastroenterology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said of the study, “These researchers are taking an important first step…. Bottom line: If you take a daily PPI, which can save lives in the right scenario, check with your doctor and see if you really need it.”
Cooke’s team of researchers advocate for lifestyle alterations that commonly help with heartburn symptoms, such as exercising, cutting down on alcohol or caffeine consumption, and avoiding heavy meals just before bedtime.