At least 10 percent of Americans have episodes of heartburn every day, and 44 percent have symptoms at least once a month. Overall, reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as heartburn) affects a whopping 25 to 35 percent of the US population! (i) As a result, acid-blocking medications are the third top-selling type of drug in America today. Two other drugs to treat reflux, Nexium and Prevacid, are among the world’s best-selling drugs and account for $5.1 and $3.4 billion in sales annually.

Things have certainly changed since I was in medical school. In those days, GERD wasn’t even considered a serious disease. Instead, people had heartburn or ulcers, but that was pretty much it. When acid-blocking drugs first came on the market, even the pharmaceutical representatives warned us how powerful these drugs were. They told us not to prescribe them any longer than six weeks and only for patients with documented ulcers.

In reality, acid-blocking drugs are a double-edged sword. Let’s look at some of the recent research on the dangers of these drugs.

Acid blocking drugs obviously block acid that can cause symptoms of heartburn and reflux. But your body actually needs stomach acid to stay healthy. Stomach acid is necessary to digest protein and food, activate digestive enzymes in your small intestine, keep the bacteria from growing in your small intestine, and help you absorb important nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B12.

There’s evidence that taking these medications can prevent you from properly digesting food, cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and lead to problems like irritable bowel syndrome, depression, hip fractures, and more.

For example, studies show that people who take acid-blocking medications for the long term can become deficient in vitamin B12, which can lead to depression, anemia, fatigue, nerve damage, and even dementia, especially in the elderly.

The research also tells us that taking these drugs can cause dangerous overgrowth of bacteria in the intestine called Clostridia, leading to life-threatening infections.(iv) For many more people, low-grade overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine leads to bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea (many of the common “side effects” noted in the warnings for these drugs). This can cause irritable bowel syndrome.

In addition, a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that chronic use of acid-blocking drugs leads to an increase in the development of osteoporosis and increase in hip fracture because blocking acid prevents the absorption of calcium and other minerals necessary for bone health.

These are serious health concerns, and it’s pretty clear that in this case, the “cure” of acid-blocking drugs is worse than the “disease” of GERD. But that’s of little comfort when you’re suffering from heartburn.