Widely-Used Medicine for Heartburn, Indigestion, Acid Reflux Can Cause Liver Damage: Researchers

More than 30 million Americans take Prilosec, Nexium, Prevacid, or generic versions of those over-the-counter medications.

A widely-used medicine for heartburn, indigestion and acid reflux can cause serious liver damage, researchers at UC San Diego Medical Center have discovered. 

More than 30 million Americans take Prilosec, Nexium, Prevacid, or generic versions of those over-the-counter medications.

That medicine reduces your body’s production of gastric acids and provides prompt and effective relief for painful symptoms of overeating and drinking.

But Bernd Schnabl, M.D. said his new research confirms these medications --also known as proton pump inhibitors -- can worsen liver damage in patients with existing liver disease.

That means tens of millions of obese or alcoholic Americans – and those with other kinds of liver disease – are at risk if they continuing using acid blockers without a doctor’s approval.

Schnabl’s research was published October 10 in Nature Communications.

He and his UC San Diego colleagues found that the absence of gastric acid promotes the growth of a certain bacteria in the stomach. That bacteria moves to the liver, where it worsens the inflammation associated with a chronic liver disease.

Schnabl said 10 percent of Americans now use proton pump inhibitors (PPI), and as many as two-thirds of patients with liver disease take that medication.

A two-week supply of a generic PPI can cost just seven dollars.

“Many people are overusing this,” Schnabl told NBC 7 News. “You can buy it very cheaply over the counter, and this is the problem, that too many people using these proton pump inhibitors.”

Schnabl said patients should talk with their doctor before using PPIs, and not use them habitually for heartburn or other similar stomach problems.

He also said so-called “lifestyle” changes can reduce those bothersome systems while improving your overall health.

“Decreasing coffee intake, decreasing alcohol intake, and eating smaller meals throughout the day, instead of a few large meals,” Schnabl said.

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