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Pop a Pill for Heartburn? Try Diet and Exercise Instead

Many Americans would rather take a drug than change their habits to control a persistent ailment. Yet, every medication has side effects, some of which can be worse than the disease they are meant to treat. Drugs considered safe when first marketed can turn out to have hazards, both bothersome and severe, that become apparent only after millions of people take them for a long enough time.

Such is the case with a popular class of drugs called proton pump inhibitors, or P.P.I.s, now used by more than 15 million Americans and many more people worldwide to counter an increasingly common ailment: acid reflux, which many people refer to as heartburn or indigestion.

These medications are now linked to a growing number of complications, ranging in seriousness from nutrient deficiencies, joint pain and infections to bone fractures, heart attacks and dementia. While definitive evidence for most of the risks identified thus far is lacking, consumers plagued by acid reflux would be wise to consider an alternative approach, namely diet and lifestyle changes that can minimize symptoms and even heal damage already done.

Acid reflux is more than just a nuisance. It involves the backward flow of stomach acid into the tissues above it. It results when the lower esophageal sphincter, a ring of muscle between the esophagus and the stomach, fails to close tightly enough to prevent the contents of the stomach from moving up instead of down. Sometimes the upper sphincter, between the esophagus and the throat, malfunctions as well.  Acid reflux is a serious disorder that can and must be treated to prevent symptoms and stave off potentially life-threatening consequences. Known medically and commercially as GERD, the acronym for gastroesophageal reflux disease, repeated bathing of the soft tissues of the esophagus with corrosive stomach acid can seriously damage them and even cause esophageal cancer, which is often fatal.

Contrary to what many believe, heartburn is but one of the many symptoms of GERD, and failure to recognize the others when heartburn is not among them can result in harmful untreated reflux. In addition to indigestion, GERD can cause a persistent dry cough, sore throat, frequent throat clearing, hoarseness, burping or hiccups, bloating, difficulty swallowing and a sensation of a lump in the throat.

If, when faced with such an otherwise unexplainable symptom, your doctor fails to think of GERD as a possible reason, you might suggest it yourself. An examination of the esophagus may be the only way to find out if someone without obvious heartburn has acid reflux but doesn’t know it.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary