Indigestion, a term that describes discomfort in the upper abdomen, includes a group of symptoms that include heartburn, bloating, and nausea. Millions of people suffer from indigestion, and drugs to control the symptoms are among the pharmaceutical industry's biggest sellers, with millions of people taking both over-the-counter and prescription medications to fight acid reflux. But these drugs come with a number of risks, says naturopathic doctor Michael T. Murray.
"Often these drugs cause more problems than they solve," he says. Acid-blocking drugs include histamine-receptor antagonist drugs (such as Zantac, Tagamet, and Pepcid AC) and proton-pump inhibitors (such as Nexium, Prilosec, and Protonix,). "These drugs work, as the term implies, by blocking one of the most important digestive processes, the secretion of hydrochloric acid by the stomach," says Dr. Murray, author of "What the Drug Companies Don't Tell You and Your Doctor Doesn't Know."
Although these drugs do suppress symptoms, they don't cure the condition and patients tend to become dependent on them. Acid-blocking drugs usually raise gastric PH levels which inhibits the action of pepsin, an enzyme involved in the digestion of proteins. In addition to interfering with the body's normal digestive processes, says Dr. Murray, high PH levels make patients more susceptible to bacteria, viruses, and mold that normal PH levels kill. Still more side effects are associated with acid-blocking drugs:
• Pneumonia. Acid-blockers increased the risk of pneumonia 4.5 times. "Apparently, without acid in the stomach, bacteria from the intestine can migrate upstream to reach the throat and then the lungs to cause infection," says Dr. Murray.
• Fractures. Taking high doses of proton-pump inhibitors for more than a year increased the risk of hip fractures by 260 percent. "Evidence suggests that PPIs may disrupt bone remodeling, making bones weaker and more susceptible to fracture," says Dr. Murray.
• Low vitamin B levels. Acid-blocking drugs inhibit the absorption of vitamin B12, a common deficiency found in senior citizens. A lack of vitamin B12 puts seniors at increased risk of many health problems, including Alzheimer's disease.
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There are supplements that fight indigestion safely and naturally, says Dr. Murray. They include:
• Hydrochloric acid (HCL). Take one 600 milligram capsule with a large meal. If symptoms don't ease, take an additional tablet at every meal (two capsules at the meal, three at the one after that). Continue to increase the dose until you reach seven tablets or a feel a warm sensation in your stomach. Warmth means you've taken too many for the meal, so cut back one tablet at the next meal.
• Digestive enzymes. If your indigestion occurs 45 minutes or more after eating, you may lack pancreatic enzymes. Take a preparation made from hog pancreas (pancreatin) or vegetarian sources such as bromelain and papain found in pineapple and papaya, respectively, says Dr. Murray. Follow directions on the label.
• DGL. "My favorite natural medicine is a special extract of licorice root known as DGL," says Dr. Murray. "It is short for deglycyrrhizinated licorice, but I tell my patients that it stands for 'darn good licorice.'" The glycyrrhetinic acid found in licorice can raise blood pressure, but DGL has the glycyrrhetinic acid removed and won't raise blood pressure. In addition to treating the symptoms of heartburn, clinical studies have found DGL to be more effective than Tagamet, Zantac, or antacids to treat peptic ulcers. Dr. Murray recommends two to four 380 milligram chewable tablets between meals or 20 minutes before meals. Full therapeutic response is seen after eight to 16 weeks.
• Peppermint oil. Specially coated capsules filled with peppermint oil (to prevent their breakdown in the stomach) have been shown to relieve heartburn, and double-blind studies have found that peppermint oil capsules relieve all IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms in 70 to 85 percent of all cases within two to four weeks.
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