Updated: July 2022
What a loaded question. When it comes to medications, antacids are generally considered a safe medication. They most certainly can help give relief to many who suffer from heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, aka: “GERD”.
But, what about overall health? How do antacids effect the body long term and what health conditions can they cause?
I think that many people don’t realize the risks associated with antacids. Since antacids give most people relief from their burning or pain, some think that it’s an easy fix and that since they don’t have the symptoms any longer that everything is all good.
In this article, I’m going to talk about healthy levels of stomach acid, how acid aids in digestion, signs of poor protein digestion and malabsorption, thyroid health, and how to tests used to determine healthy protein levels.
What are Healthy Levels of Stomach Acid?
The main acid in the stomach is hydrochloric acid (HCL). Hydrochloric acid is only made up of 2 atoms composing a molecule containing one atom of hydrogen and one atom of chloride.
Most people think of chlorine as an acid and millions of people use chlorine products to clean with. Chlorine is used to clean and disinfect water, countertops, clothes, teeth, etc…
There are many uses of chlorine but when it is combined with hydrogen, it becomes a volatile acid. Acid isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s good.
What does Acid Do?
Acid breaks substances down. Acids in the stomach aid in digestion. Digestion is the breakdown of food particles so that the body can absorb nutrients from the foods that we eat every day.
Proper amounts of stomach acid are needed to break down food particles and prevent malnutrition. I’ve written about malnutrition before.
I believe that many people who habitually or prescriptively take antacids deal with some level of malnutrition without even knowing it. Malnutrition is a lack of what the body needs to heal and repair.
How can Antacids cause Malnutrition?
The pH in the stomach ranges from 1.5-3.5. This is very acidic. The pH scale states that anything below a 7 is an acid. So, a 1.5 to 3.5 is extremely acidic.
Any substance that is above a 7 is considered a truly alkaline pH. It’s important to understand that even though a pH of 3.5 is an acidic pH, a 3.5 is significantly more alkaline than a 1.5.
The pH scale is logarithmic which means that an increase or decrease of 1 is exponential. So, a pH of 2.5 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 1.5. A pH of 3.5 is 1,000 times more acidic than a 1.5!
Understanding that a pH of 3.5 is 1,000 times more alkaline than a pH of 1.5 is important when it comes to digestion and overall health.
Antacids are producers and promoters of alkalinity. After all, they are “Anti-Acids”. Antacids raise the pH of stomach acids and make them less acidic.
Protein digestion is dependent on good amounts of hydrochloric acid (HCL). Antacid use can raise stomach pH and make the enzymes responsible for protein breakdown (proteolysis) less active.
Eating enough dietary protein each day is totally different than good digestion and absorption of proteins. An alkaline stomach pH can cause a decrease in absorption of amino acids from protein and lead to malnutrition over time.
The body needs amino acids (extracted from protein digestion) to build new proteins for maintenance, healing, and tissue repair. When the body is deficient in dietary protein or absorbed protein, it literally can’t heal and repair.
Signs of Protein Deficiency
- Fluid Retention
- Brittle Nails
- Thinning Hair
- Weak Immune System
- Edema or Swelling in the Extremities
- Excessive Hunger
- Poor Health
- Muscle Loss
- Osteopenia and Osteoporosis
- Poor Thyroid Health
Of course, acid reflux, heartburn, indigestion, or GERD are not fun. Anyone who deals with these conditions feels the discomfort, burning, or pain. That is why they usually resort to over the counter antacids and then progress to prescription antacids over time.
The reason I decided to write this article is because I want to educate the public that taking antacids aren’t necessarily a free pass. All medications have possible side effects and there are natural strategies to promote better digestion and aid in heartburn relief.
How could Thyroid Function be Affected by low Protein Levels?
Thyroid hormones are carried through the body on proteins. Proteins are like taxi cabs that carry proteins where they need to go.
Thyroglobulin is a protein made by the thyroid gland. The thyroid hormones T4 and T3 are produced from thyroglobulin proteins. Low protein intake or poor digestion and absorption of protein can be a contributor to hypothyroidism.
Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (autoimmune hypothyroidism) will often exhibit high levels of thyroglobulin antibodies on blood testing. One of the hallmarks of Hashimoto’s disease is low Free T3 because the immune system is destroying the thyroglobulin proteins from which T3 is derived.
Destruction of the building blocks of T3 creates hypothyroidism. A sign of hypothyroidism is an elevated Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). Low levels of T4 and T3 in the blood will stimulate more TSH production by the pituitary gland.
In a healthy thyroid gland, an increase in TSH production causes the thyroid to make more T4 and T3. When the thyroid proteins are being attacked by the immune system, the levels of free T3 will be low and therefore, hypothyroidism is a result.
What can be done to Improve Protein Digestion?
Don’t drink liquids before eating meals. Wait at least 30 minutes after eating before ingesting liquids. Dilution of stomach acid can inhibit the breakdown of foods. Let the acid do its job.
Digestive enzymes are necessary for some people. Enzymes break down substances throughout the body and promote chemical reactions. Some people need a little support to help promote the proper breakdown of proteins.
Betaine HCL is also good for helping support healthy stomach acid levels. Betaine HCL is a supplement. It can aid in digestion for man people who suffer from acid reflux. Everyone is different and dosages vary from individual to individual.
Antacids and Milk-Alkali Syndrome
Around the world, osteopenia and osteoporosis (bone loss) is approaching epidemic proportions. Many people are taking calcium supplements to prevent bone loss.
Calcium supplementation combined with antacid use can lead to a condition called Milk-Alkali Syndrome. Milk-Alkali Syndrome is usually a reversible condition but can lead to permanent kidney damage or kidney failure which is irreversible.
Careful consideration must be applied when combining antacids and calcium supplementation. Laboratory tests can be used to help identify possible Milk-Alkali Syndrome such as serum calcium, carbon dioxide and creatinine.
Albumin, Edema and Water Retention
Another sign of poor digestion of protein can be low levels of albumin on a blood test. Albumin is a protein made by the liver.
For the liver to make enough albumin, protein must be broken down by the digestive tract. The amino acids (created by breakdown of proteins) travel to the liver where the liver uses some of them to make a protein called albumin.
Albumin is the main protein the body uses to maintain, heal, and repair. Low albumin levels have a detrimental effect on overall health. Significantly suppressed albumin levels are considered an ominous sign.
Albumin protein is hydrophilic which means that it is a water loving protein. Albumin freely circulates in the blood vessels throughout the body.
Since albumin loves water, it will bind to water and keep it in the blood. Therefore, albumin behaves like a bunch of sponges.
When there is enough albumin in the blood, there are a lot of “sponges” in the blood and fluid will stay in the arteries and veins. When albumin levels are low, there are less “sponges” and fluid can leak out of the blood vessels.
Often, diuretics are used to treat water retention and soft tissue edema. Sometimes, poor protein digestion and absorption can be the root cause of the problem and what needs to be addressed in order to decrease swelling.
As a functional medicine Dr., I am always looking to identify nutrient deficiencies and possible drivers of tissue breakdown and poor health. Antacid use is quite common with my new patients. In working to improve health, all bases need to be covered to identify what needs to be done to improve health and quality of life.
Health Is Happiness,
Dr. Keith Currie