The Purple Pill: Pandora’s Box (The Untold Perils of Proton Pump Inhibitors)

I love purple. It’s always been one of my favorite colors. From my childhood to adult years, I always thought its deep hues were the most rich and mysterious. Purple was even one of my signature wedding colors.

When it comes in a pill form, however, I despise purple. Too strong a word? Not in the least. The purple pill (or Nexium) was my constant companion for over three years. Prescribed by my well-meaning but medication-loving gastroenterologist, I thought it would solve all my digestive problems. It did, at least I thought. It’s beneficial mirage only lasted a while. When I look back, I wish I had never seen that cute little purple pill.

Now let me tell you why.

Untold Perils of PPI

My Purple Pill Story

My digestive upsets began in the summer of 2005. My sister and I were roommates at the time and she was the first to notice my un-lady-like belching! It didn’t hurt, so I ignored it. She kept telling me, “Tracy, that’s not normal.” No truer words were ever spoken! By October, my uncouth burping turned into daily and debilitating nausea. I was teaching music part-time at a private school, and my only goal each day was to get through the next class. I looked at the clock often, thinking, “I can make, just 15 more minutes, just 10 more minutes.” I would sometimes run to the bathroom, thinking I might throw up my last meal. But vomiting never came, just the never-ending feeling of sea-sickness. It was exhausting. My mother finally convinced me to see my physician, who then sent me to the gastroenterologist.

An endoscopy revealed nothing unusual – no ulcers, no inflammation, no gaping holes in my stomach. I was told I had non-ulcerative dyspepsia, or too much stomach acid. (It was more likely that hypochlorhydria, or too little stomach acid, was causing my symptoms.)

What now? “Take this pill,” he said.

It’s purple. I like purple.

Nexium was supposed to relieve my symptoms by turning off the “acid pumps” in my stomach. It did. Within three weeks, I felt like my normal self again, alive with energy and stamina. No more bouts with nausea. I remember telling people, “Better living through chemistry!” I was cured! I eventually started taking the cheaper, over-the-counter Prilosec.

While I was enjoying the cessation of my symptoms, little did I know what was happening deep within my bowels. Undiagnosed gluten sensitivity was growing worse, partially undigested food was traveling through my intestines due to lower stomach acid production, and severe iron and magnesium deficiencies were developing. My life was a cover up! I was covering up my symptoms, masking them with an allegedly safe drug. All the while, a larger storm was brewing.

Fast forward three years later…

In late spring of 2008, I crashed, literally. My digestive troubles returned with a vengeance, even though I was still on Prilosec. My asthma flared like it had not in years. Panic attacks were a regular battle, even though I had never experienced them before.

I was confused! What was happening to my body?

On my first visit to the doctor, I was placed back on Nexium and given strong asthma meds, including a round of predisone. Unfortunately, I only got worse. I suffered from extreme fatigue, sleeping 10-11 hours per night and napping two to three times per day. I also awoke routinely with night sweats, breathing difficulties, and anxiety. On my second visit to the doc, blood work revealed I was hypoglycemic and anemic.

Now I was confused and in pain!

I still didn’t understand what was happening, but I was determined to do everything in my power to restore my health.

I never wanted to feel this way again.

Long story, short. With the help of a naturopath, chiropractor, nutritionist, and exceptional friends, I have recovered much of my health. It has taken integrative therapies, dietary changes (particularly a gluten-free lifestyle), and spiritual growth. Read My Health Story.

Do I believe the purple pill contributed to my downward health spiral? Without a doubt, yes! It took me a year to wean myself off of Nexium and Prilosec. These drugs are addictive and hazardous, especially with long-term use. Pandora’s Box has been unleashed. Thousands upon thousands of unsuspectingly people popping proton pump inhibitors are subjecting themselves to untold perils.

Don’t Be Fooled by the Pretty Package

Proton pump inhibitors or PPIs are medications that greatly reduce the stomach’s ability to produce hydrochloric acid (HCL). Commonly prescribed in the treatment of acid reflux (GERD), dyspepsia, or ulcers, PPIs are one of the highest-selling class of drugs worldwide. In 2010, proton-pump-inhibitors accounted for $13.9 billion in US sales, third in line after anti-psychotic and statin drugs. In addition to Nexium, other popular brand names include Prilosec, Protonix, and Prevacid. You may have seen Omeprazole, the generic form of Prilosec, advertised at your local pharmacy, drugstore, or major retailer, like Costco.

If taken continuously, the purported advantages of these drugs pale in comparison to the far greater health risks. The side effects are broad, ranging from headaches to anemia to increased risk of bone fracture. I can see how a short course of Prilosec may be helpful in reducing pain while an ulcer is healing. However, long-term use is dangerous. Even the Prilosec packaging warns against taking it longer than two weeks.

Prilosec imageLet’s take a closer look at the side effects.

Magnesium deficiency

In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration warned that long-term use of proton-pump-inhibitors causes low serum magnesium levels. Magnesium is essential in regulating everyday body processes, such as blood pressure, heart rhythm, tooth and bone formation, and bowel function. Sufficient magnesium may even prevent heart attack and stroke. When beginning magnesium oil supplementation this year, I had to increase my dosage very slowly to prevent extreme reactions. After taking it for eight months, I’m finally up to the suggested dose of eight sprays! Even though I was never tested, I believe I had a severe magnesium deficiency, due to my long-term PPI use.

Clostridium difficile infection

Several studies indicate that lower levels of stomach acid may leave the body more vulnerable to harmful bacteria. Infections, like C. difficile, cause terrible diarrhea, intestinal inflammation and can be deadly.

Bone fractures

Continuous use of PPIs may lead to increased risk for bone fractures, particularly in the spine, wrist, and hip. This spring, Health Canada released a statement about the correlation between PPI use and hip fractures. Now all PPI drugs marketed in Canada must have warning labels.

Anemia

I now believe Nexium and Prilosec caused my anemic state in 2008. Acid-suppressing medications block the absorption of iron and B12 from food by lowering stomach acid levels. Symptoms of anemia include headache, dizziness, heart palpitations, fatigue, and chest pain.

Heart attack risk

Recent studies published in the journal of American Heart Association reveal that PPIs increase the risk of a cardiac event, especially for patients who have had a previous heart attack. Acid-blockers may constrict blood vessels and reduce blood flow, as well as suppress nitrous oxide, an essential component to keep artery walls relaxed.

Pneumonia

According to a Canadian study, there is a 27 percent increased risk of contracting pneumonia if you use proton-pump-inhibitors, even within the first week of therapy! Long-term use did not seem to be a factor. In my research, I read numerous articles about PPI-associated pneumonia. This life-threatening disease is one of the most common side effects of PPI use, especially for susceptible populations, like the elderly.

Malabsorption

It doesn’t take a medical degree or scientific prowess to realize that we humans need stomach acid. When we suppress the body’s ability to make stomach acid to digest food, we also reduce its ability to absorb vital nutrients. Extended use of PPIs can cause malabsorption of essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium, magnesium, iron, folate, Vitamin A, and Vitamin D.

Food sensitivities

Individuals taking proton-pump-inhibitors are at an increased risk for food allergies and sensitivities, because digestion is impaired. PPI use induces intestinal permeability or leaky gut syndrome, and leaves the body vulnerable to auto-immune conditions.

 Protect Your Digestion with Natural Remedies

Acid reflux is not just a condition, it’s a symptom of a systemic problem. Have you asked yourself WHY you are having digestion disturbances? If I had only asked why, then I might have prevented my gluten and food sensitivities from worsening. It’s important to address your underlying health condition.

Explore the common factors that affect digestion:

  • gluten sensitivity
  • lactose intolerance
  • citrus or spicy foods
  • genetically modified foods
  • over-consumption of refined flours and sugars
  • eating too quickly
  • hypochlorhydria or too little stomach acid
  • prescription drug reactions
  • obesity
  • job stress
  • marriage and family troubles

Last summer, one of my friends came to me seeking advice about her sudden stomach problems and anxiety attacks. We explored all typical food interactions, but the final culprit was specific fruits and berries. Of course, she thought them to be healthy. And for most people, they are! But for her, they were not. Once she avoided the fruits, she immediately began to see improvement.

What is causing your digestive trouble?

If you’ve ruled out all possible causes, then try these natural remedies that help sooth and heal the stomach and gut lining.

  • probiotics
  • slippery elm
  • marshmallow extract
  • mastic gum
  • menuca honey
  • chamomile

I plead with you. If you are taking Nexium or Prilosec, or a PPI in any form, seriously evaluate the long-term side effects. I believe the risks are not worth the temporary symptom relief. I understand how it feels to be sick. Digestion problems are most difficult because they affect your mind and emotional state. At the height of my digestive struggles, I experienced anxiety that truly scared me. I felt awful all over my body! In my quest to feel better, I was willing to sacrifice long-term health. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that at the time.

I wish someone would have told me about the dangers then.

If you are reading this, someone is telling you now!

If you’ve been taking PPIs long-term, then work with a qualified practitioner to wean yourself off the drugs. Do NOT stop cold turkey! They have addictive qualities, and your system will need adequate time to relinquish its dependence on acid blockers. Once you are off the drugs, take regular doses of apple cider vinegar before each meal and over-the-counter Betaine HCL to increase your acid levels. Suzy Cohen, a nationally-renowned pharmacist, explains why we need more stomach acid to combat and reverse acid reflux.

Be encouraged. There is hope for your digestive disorder, whether acid reflux or irritable bowel. I believe there is hope without drugs, without the purple pill!

Drugs like Nexium and Prilosec are no longer enticing to me.

I want to heal my body, not just cover up my symptoms!

What about you?

This entry was posted in Digestion, Drugs/Medication, Gluten-Free, Real Food, Stress. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Purple Pill: Pandora’s Box (The Untold Perils of Proton Pump Inhibitors)

  1. Wow, this is intense. It goes along with my current “gut” feeling (no pun intended) that many drugs engineered by for-profit drug companies are more about marketing than making people healthy, and we need LESS medical intervention, not more, to improve our health! I had IBS and other issues for many years and not until I cut out grains and processed foods did I really feel healthy. And even then I didn’t feel as good as I do now, with all the healthy fats and nutrient-dense meats I eat. It’s very sad that over my years of digestion issues, no doctor ever thought maybe I was having a reaction to a food! Thanks for posting this and bringing it up to more people!

    • Tracy says:

      It’s funny how some doctors don’t think that food can have an affect on your health. Medications have side effects, so can food. My intent is not to scare people but to get them to think about significant issues their doctor is NOT telling them. I felt like I was railroaded into a one-size fits all medical approach, as you can read from my story. I want people to realize much of their health is in their hands. They can be their own best advocate. Yes, I agree LESS intervention is necessary. I’m glad to hear you’ve found better digestion through eating REAL food. Yay for healthy fats!

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