Probiotics for Heartburn? My Patient says it Works

Woman with a Stomach Ache
September 24, 2013 (Updated: August 22, 2018)
Lily Moran

Here’s a good example of how the best intentions can lead to bad outcomes. Ellen came to me with serious constipation alternating with diarrhea. At the same time, she was experiencing troubling heartburn symptoms, with frequent vomiting and nausea. As a college professor, Ellen’s health problems were disrupting her job, so she was truly motivated to get on the right track.

Looking over her medical history, I found that Ellen was taking far too many over-the-counter antacids, sometimes more than a dozen in one day.

“But those couldn’t be a problem, could they? That’s how I get calcium for strong bones,” she explained, when I asked why so many. “And I’ve had heartburn for years, so I can kill two birds with one stone.”

Actually, Ellen was killing her digestive system by overdosing on antacids. But it really wasn’t her fault. Advertising has popularized far too many medical myths, such as the idea that stomach problems are caused by too much acid. And, like many patients, Ellen was shocked to discover that it is possible to overdose on over-the-counter remedies.

“But I thought that it would be safe, since it’s not prescription medicine,” she said. “Are you sure that’s what’s wrong with me?”

Yes, I was sure. Alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea, as well as vomiting and nausea, are all symptoms of too much calcium carbonate, one of the prime ingredients in over-the-counter indigestion medications. And now Ellen was experiencing the complications of going overboard with the wrong medicine.

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After a short lecture on how digestion works, I sent Ellen home with natural antacid alternatives, including digestive enzymes, probiotics, and a green food supplement. She called the following day to report that she had decided to test my remedies with a pepperoni pizza, one food that always caused stomach problems for her.

“I figured that if the enzymes could stand up to pizza, then the other things you gave me would probably work, too. And they came through with flying colors!”

During Ellen’s next visit, she described her relief at not having to worry about whether or not she would get sick after every meal.

“And the other problems are gone, too, so now I don’t have to be near a bathroom in case I develop diarrhea after lunch. I can’t tell you how that’s changed my life. I’ve been putting off going to Europe for a vacation, mostly because of all the issues I was having. But now that I can eat again, I just bought tickets to Italy. That’s how confident I am that my problems are gone!”

A few weeks later, Ellen sent me a postcard with a photograph of a plate of spaghetti. On the back, she had written, “Having a great time. Thanks for turning my life around!” Now that’s what I call a glowing testimonial!

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