People now days “pop” antacids like they were candy, in hopes that the chalky little chews will relieve the symptoms brought on by their bad eating habits. And if you know anyone who regularly takes them, you’ll probably notice that they need to take more and more, and by the handfuls, in an attempt to quell the constant acid back-up and that burning sensation in their stomach.
But are those antacids really helping?…………………………….
A Summary Of How Your Stomach Functions
Your stomach is a warm and highly acidic environment, and should have an optimal pH level of between 1.5 – 3.0. The two main functions of this acidic environment is to break down food for digestion and to kill bacteria. Bacteria enter the stomach every time you consume food. It is estimated that as many as 300 billion to 400 billion bacteria enter the stomach with each meal. The strong acid found in gastric juices kills most of these bacteria. Often, when stomach acid, which is indispensable for protecting the body, is SUPPRESSED with medication, bacteria with strong toxins pass through the stomach and into the intestines, where they can cause diarrhea and various illnesses.
If stomach acid secretion is suppressed, the secretion of pepsin and hydrochloric acid, which activate digestive enzymes, is also suppressed, resulting in indigestion. Moreover, insufficient stomach acid makes it more difficult to absorb iron and minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
Interesting To Note: People who have had gastrectomies (removal of all or part of the stomach) for stomach ulcers or stomach cancer are always anemic, because when their stomachs are surgically removed, they no longer secrete stomach acid and are unable to absorb iron.
Furthermore, suppressing stomach acid destroys the bacterial balance in the intestine, resulting in a weakening of the immune system. It is said that approximately 100 trillion bacteria of some 300 different varieties reside in the human intestine. Among them, there are so-called good bacteria like the lactobacillus bifidus and bad bacteria such as the Welsh bacteria. The majority of bacteria in the intestine are neither good nor bad, but rather intermediate bacteria. Intermediate bacteria have unique properties so that if the number of good bacteria in the intestine multiplies, these intermediate bacteria become good bacteria. And likewise, if the number of bad bacteria multiplies, then the intermediate bacteria then become bad bacteria. Thus you can think of intermediate bacteria as the “conformers”, and they can tilt the balance between good and bad bacteria, and that balance determines the overall health of the intestinal environment.
What Happens When Digestive Enzymes Aren’t Activated?
If stomach acid secretion is insufficient or suppressed, digestive enzymes cannot be activated, resulting in undigested food advancing straight into the intestines. Food that should have been primarily digested and absorbed in the intestine remains undigested in the colon. The temperature inside the human colon is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which is equivalent to mid-summer heat temperatures. The undigested food decomposes, just as picnic fare left out on a hot afternoon in July would, and abnormal fermentation occurs. As a result, the number of bad bacteria multiplies abnormally in the colon, weakening the immune system.
In this way, the more you take antacids – suppressing your natural digestive enzymes, the more damage you’re doing to your body. To avoid this damage, you need to prevent heartburn or bloating sensations that make you want to take antacids in the first place.
How Heartburn Occurs
Heartburn occurs when stomach acids flow back into the esophagus. The esophagus is susceptible to acid because it is typically an alkaline environment (pH higher than 7). Thus, when stomach acid (averaging 1.5 – 3.0 pH) builds up in the esophagus, people unconsciously swallow their alkaline saliva, washing down stomach acid that had flowed up. When you overeat or experience indigestion, this causes acid to build up and is difficult to be washed down with saliva, and results in scratch-like sores called erosions in the esophagus. Under that situation, if stomach acid flows up to the esophagus, it is like putting rubbing alcohol on an open wound, causing the symptoms of pain and discomfort commonly known as heartburn.
The “relief” you feel after taking antacids, comes from the suppressing of further stomach acid secretion, but remember the damage you are doing to your body every time you attempt to suppress stomach secretions, which results in the suppression of vital digestive enzymes, and the negative ripple effect goes on and on. It can be a viscous circle of defeat.
In order to suppress heartburn, all you have to do is prevent things in the stomach from backing up into the esophagus. In order to do that, you must refrain from overeating and over drinking, and cut down on smoking, alcohol and coffee. Another important thing to remember, is to finish eating your evening meal at least 3-4 hours before going to bed, so that your stomach is empty when you go to sleep.
Gastritis, H. Pylori and Stomach Cancer
On the stomach mucosa, there are tiny projections called villi, that secrete stomach acids. However, if one continues to take antacids in order to suppress the secretion of stomach acid, these villi become shorter and shorter, weakening their function. This is what is known as mucosal atrophy. As atrophy of the mucosa progresses, the gastric mucosa becomes thin, causing inflammation – atrophic gastritis. Stomachs with atrophic gastritis easily become a hotbed of Helicobacter pylon (H. pylon) and other types of bacteria, steadily worsening the inflammation of the stomach, and in the end causing stomach cancer.
H. pylori infection is common in the United States and infected persons have a two – six-fold increased risk of developing stomach cancer. H. pylori can conceal themselves either inside mucosal cells or inside the mucus, which protects the gastric mucosa from stomach acids. Since H. pylon is contracted orally, the infection rate increases with age, and it is estimated that the H. pylori infection rate among people over the age of 50 is 50%.
Being infected with H. pylori does not always lead to stomach cancer, but in order to suppress the H. pylori from multiplying, it is better to avoid taking stomach medication including antacids as much as possible.
As you can clearly see, it is quite the oxymoron and counterproductive, to take antacids in an attempt to treat your heartburn and indigestion. What feels like a temporary relief, is actually adding to the problem, and can hasten your trip down the road to a much worse situation, including stomach cancer.
In Friday’s ‘Antacids – Part II’ of this article, we will discuss various natural remedies, to ease the discomfort of heartburn and indigestion.
Bon Veggie Appetit!
Gina ‘The Veggie Goddess’ Matthews