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When you're suffering from repeated episodes of heartburn, turning to over-the-counter acid reflux medications may seem like the most logical step. It can also place you at risk of long-term side effects, however. Should you quit using OTC heartburn meds?

Around 15 percent of the American population suffers from heartburn at least once a week [1], and acid reflux is a public health concern in other developed nations as well [2, 3].

If you're one of the people who often finds themselves battling heartburn, and you haven't seen a doctor about it yet, our bet is that your default solution is to turn to over-the-counter medications to get rid of heartburn fast

What Over-The-Counter-Heartburn Medications Are Available?

Over-the-counter heartburn medications fall into three broad categories:

  • Antacids neutralize stomach acids, offering you rapid heartburn relief. Gaviscon, Alka-Seltzer, and Pepto-Bismol are all examples of antacids. 
  • Proton pump inhibitors (or PPIs for short) reduce the amount of stomach acid your body produces. Over-the-counter PPIs include Prilosec and Prevacid
  • H2 blockers also reduce the amount of stomach acid your body makes, and will produce relief after about an hour. Zantac and Pepcid are some examples of OTC H2 blockers. 

All of these heartburn medications are good at providing short-term and medium-term relief from heartburn, but remember that heartburn is caused by a dysfunction of the lower esophageal sphincter, and not by stomach acid as such. The over-the-counter heartburn medications that you rely on simply provide symptom relief, in other words, rather than solving the underlying cause of your heartburn. Along with that symptom relief, you may experience some nasty side effects as well. 

Long-Term Use Of OTC Heartburn Medication Can Give You Some Nasty Side Effects

Antacids are made with different ingredients. If the antacid you are taking to get rid of heartburn contains calcium, you may end up with constipation or even kidney stones. Brands that contain magnesium can lead to diarrhea, and the long-term use of antacids that contain aluminum can lead to osteoporosis. [4]

H2 blockers may cause headaches, diarrhea, dizziness, and skin rashes. [5]

Proton pump inhibitors may offer pretty efficient relief from heartburn, but long-term used is associated with an increased risk of heart attack, pneumonia, bacterial infections, and nutritional deficiencies. [6, 7, 8, 9]

It's important to keep in mind that the fact that a certain medication is available without a prescription doesn't mean you should necessarily use it in the long-term without the guidance of a doctor, and that exceeding the recommended dose may increase your risk of suffering from side effects — including side effects you really, really don't want to end up with. 

What if there was another way to get rid of heartburn? What if an acid reflux diet, natural heartburn remedies, and lifestyle changes, could offer you long-term symptom relief? 

Natural Heartburn Remedies And An Acid Reflux Diet

Should you have decided to try to wean yourself off over-the-counter acid reflux medications, the first thing you will want to do is learn about a sustainable acid reflux diet — that is, about foods that trigger heartburn, and foods that help prevent heartburn. 

People with GERD and frequent episodes of heartburn are generally advised to avoid known heartburn triggers such as tomatoes, peppermint, chocolate, peppermint, spicy foods, fatty foods, citrus fruits coffee, and carbonated sugary drinks. Since heartburn and alcohol are linked, you will also want to reduce your drinking. [10, 11]

You will want to work towards attaining a healthy weight if you aren't there already [12], and you will want to limit your portion sizes and eat smaller meals more frequently instead. Chewing gum after meals stimulates salivary production, and as such also helps some people get rid of heartburn [13].

What's more, some people find that sleeping on their left side [14] with their head in an elevated position [15] reduces episodes of nightly heartburn. 

How does this work in practice? SteadyHealth asked Louise, a 43-year-old woman who was diagnosed with GERD. She told us:

"When I told my doctor that I wanted to stop using Prevacid, he recommended I look into lifestyle changes that would reduce my heartburn. I lost weight and stopped drinking beer, and these two changes have made a tremendous positive impact on my GERD symptoms. Chewing gum doesn't appear to help me, but I am still trying to find an acid reflux diet that works for me."

How To Wean Yourself Off Your OTC Heartburn Medication

Louise had been relying on Prevacid for quite a while when she came to the conclusion that her magnesium deficiency was linked to the medication. Her doctor warned her that she was likely to experience a rebound effect in which the body produces excessive amounts of stomach acids once the medication is discontinued — 44 percent of former PPI users are quite uncomfortable for a while [16]. 

To prevent the worst of this rebound effect, Louise gradually increased the intervals at which she took Prevacid before stopping it altogether. She isn't off heartburn medication altogether but is now using Zantac (an H2 inhibitor that is less likely to cause side effects) on an as-needed basis in consultation with her doctor, trying to figure out which foods are most likely to trigger her heartburn, and continuing to exercise and lose weight. 

Her story should tell you that it is indeed possible to stop using a particular over-the-counter heartburn medication you have been relying on. Louise says:

"There is no magic fix for GERD. The lifestyle changes everyone recommends won't help you overnight, and some won't work for you at all. Losing weight and stopping drinking wasn't exactly easy for me, and quitting Prevacid was definitely a challenge. Don't think it's easy. I can say it was worth it in the end, though."

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