Recent polls show that as much as a third of American adults suffer from heartburn once a week. Many of them reach for proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) like Nexium and Prilosec to relieve their pain. But research shows that long-term use of these over-the-counter meds is linked to memory loss, thinning bones, and heart issues.
Even more startling: A recent study in The American Journal of Gastroenterology shows that taking PPIs also nearly quadruples the risk of contracting COVID-19. Scientists suspect that’s because PPIs reduce the amount of acid released into the stomach by about 90 percent for 24 hours. And while too much acid can cause reflux symptoms, the body needs some acid.
“Stomach acid keeps the digestive system free of infections by killing viruses and bacteria you might swallow in saliva or food,” explains lead study author Christopher V. Almario, M.D., of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Since the virus that causes COVID-19 can enter the body through the digestive system, decreased stomach acid could make it easier for it to invade.” Luckily, it’s easy to quell the burn — without wiping out stomach acid. Pick the remedy that matches your symptoms to start healing today.
If stress worsens your heartburn…
If tense situations trigger your reflux, you’re not alone. In a study of patients with heartburn, stress was the most common cause of flare-ups, beating common triggers like coffee and greasy foods. Fortunately, you can dodge reflux just by breathing. Taking deep diaphragmatic breaths — where your belly rises and falls — reduces the output of stress hormones and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, dialing back stomach acid production.
And that’s not all: “Diaphragmatic breathing can strengthen the junction between the esophagus and stomach, preventing future reflux,” notes Andrew Ong, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Singapore General Hospital. In Dr. Ong’s studies, 56 percent of adults who regularly practiced this breathing technique experienced an improvement in reflux symptoms within four weeks.
To do: Inhale for a count of four through your nose, then exhale for a count of eight through your mouth, feeling your abdomen rising and falling while your chest and shoulders remain still. Do this for 5 minutes three times a day.
If heartburn makes you cough…
When reflux is accompanied by coughing, it’s a sign that stomach acid is seeping into your throat. The simple fix: After meals, take a heartburn reliever that contains alginate, a seaweed extract. “Unlike acid-blocking medications, alginates create a foam-like barrier that blocks the flow of acid from the stomach into the esophagus,” explains David A. Leiman, M.D., assistant professor of gastroenterology at Duke University Medical Center.
In one study from the U.K.’s Nottingham University Hospitals, alginates led to a 47 percent drop in heartburn and coughing within eight weeks. To get the benefits, look for “alginic acid” on the ingredients label. One to try: Gaviscon Extra Strength (Buy on Amazon, $9.48).
If heartburn keeps you up at night…
If symptoms rouse you out of a sound slumber, leaving you frustratingly exhausted, taking three milligrams of melatonin at bedtime can help. The so-called “sleep hormone” curbs excessive acid production for up to 10 hours, preventing reflux from waking you but still allowing production to restart in the morning to protect against viruses.
“As we do not need stomach acid while we are sleeping, melatonin turns off its production, while also preventing acid from refluxing into the esophagus,” explains Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D. Indeed, in one study, taking three milligrams of melatonin (Buy on Amazon, $12.67) nightly led to 100 percent remission of symptoms for reflux patients within eight weeks.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.