Proton pump inhibitors such as Prilosec (omeprazole) and Nexium (esomeprazole) are among the most widely-prescribed medications on earth. Used for the treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), they are effective and relatively safe when used on a short-term basis (no more than 12 weeks).

However, long-term dependency on these medications can have serious health consequences. Proton pump inhibitors have been linked to kidney damage, stroke, heart attack, stomach infections, colitis, dementia, and osteoporosis. Worse, once a patient is on one of these drugs, withdrawal can be difficult because of the “rebound” effect. A 2006 study found that only about one-quarter of patients who attempt to get off of PPIs are successful.

Are there other treatments for chronic reflux disease? It is possible according to doctors who practice integrative medicine. In fact, there are a number of studies going back several years indicating that therapies such as acupuncture, use of herbal supplements, and even relaxation techniques and biofeedback can provide a remedy.

A report appearing in the June 2017 issue of the journal Primary Care outlines a number of these alternative treatments. Among them is a trio of studies on the effect of acupuncture on reflux disease. Two of the studies cited were carried out in China, where acupuncture originated approximately 4,000 years ago. These studies found that a 6-week course of treatment resulted in a significant reduction in symptoms. A third study from Bastyr University found that 10 acupuncture sessions over the course of a month were more effective at easing gastric reflux than doubling a patient’s PPI dosage.

Another alternative involved the use of herbal and dietary supplements, including melatonin, a natural hormone involved in the regulation of the sleep cycle. The Bastyr University study found that melatonin, used in combination with vitamins and amino acids, was more effective than a single 20 mg dose of Nexium in controlling GERD symptoms.

That study also looked at the use of an herbal supplement called Iberogast, or STW 5, which a 2012 study published in a German medical journal found to be a “safe and effective standard in the treatment of functional gastrointestinal disorders.” Other more common herbs that have been studied include pectin (used in making jam) and alginate, a derivative of brown algae. When these come in contact with stomach acid, they form natural polymers that float to the upper entry of the stomach, forming helpful barriers.

The report also examined the role of diet and lifestyle in gastric reflux disease. GERD is associated with high fat, fried and spicy foods, as well as citrus, garlic, and onions. It has also been found that consumption of alcohol, coffee, and carbonated soda drinks can have a weakening effect on the lower esophageal sphincter. The author notes that weight loss and elevating the upper body during sleep can ease GERD symptoms.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.