What Happens to Your Body When You Take Antacids Regularly

Taking antacids every day might improve your digestive discomfort, but should you?

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Reviewed by Dietitian Jessica Ball, M.S., RD

Nearly 1 in every 5 Americans suffers from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also often called acid reflux. Even if you don't have an acid reflux diagnosis, you likely have taken an antacid like Tums or know somebody who has. While this is a common medication, there are still things you’ll want to consider, especially if you take it regularly. Let's find out if it is safe to take antacids every day, and some of the side effects—positive or negative—that can happen when taking this medication.

What Are Antacids?

If acid reflux is like a small fire that burns in our stomach, then antacids are akin to firefighters. This means they help neutralize the burning sensation we experience, and soothe acid production in our digestive tract—namely, our stomach. Producing stomach acid is a normal process that helps us break down food into smaller particles that we can digest.

The most common antacids are primarily made with calcium carbonate, magnesium hydroxide or aluminum hydroxide. They often come in pills, chewable tablets and liquids for different needs. Each type has its own qualities and side effects. Remember that if you’re thinking about taking an antacid, it’s important to discuss the different forms with your health care provider to best understand which option will suit your needs.

Potential Health Benefits of Taking Antacids Regularly

Heartburn Relief

Perhaps the most well-known benefit of taking an antacid is swiftly soothing the discomfort of heartburn or indigestion. Acting as potent bases, antacids help to counteract stomach acid by neutralizing the pH in our stomach and relieving the burning sensation in our chest. These medications are generally meant to be short-term solutions, and they don't solve the root problem of heartburn. Rather, they help you feel better in the moment when heartburn strikes.

If you find yourself regularly relying on over-the-counter antacids, it's likely time to talk to your physician or health care provider to learn about alternative solutions.

Esophageal and Stomach Lining Protection

If you experience high levels of acid production, antacids may help protect against any damage to your esophageal lining or your stomach. The corrosive effects of prolonged stomach acid either in the esophagus or the lining of the stomach can cause painful ulcers. Over time, this may put you at a greater risk for esophagitis and stomach cancer.

Indigestion Relief

While antacids are most well known for improving heartburn symptoms, they may also provide relief from gastrointestinal distress like gas, bloating and belching. That's because these symptoms of indigestion can arise from excess acid production. By lowering the acidity levels in the stomach, antacids may also help alleviate discomfort that is caused by this gas production. If you're regularly relying on these medications to improve the symptoms, it's time to book an appointment with a gastroenterologist to better understand the underlying causes of your symptoms.

Potential Side Effects of Taking Antacids Regularly

Potential for Acid Rebound

One side effect that is not frequently talked about is the concept of acid rebound, or the increased production of acid after relying on antacids for a long time. This is likely due to our stomach compensating for the amount of acid it had to produce when taking an acid-neutralizing medication. This can lead to worsening symptoms of heartburn and indigestion. Talk with your doctor about how to best change your dose or wean off these medications if that is your goal.

Diarrhea or Constipation

Particularly when overused, antacids can cause digestive distress like diarrhea or constipation. Magnesium-based antacids are more prone to have laxative effects that lead to diarrhea, whereas aluminum-based antacids can have a constipating effect. If you have a preexisting gastrointestinal condition, such as IBS, you may want to run these medications by your doctor before you take them.

Medication Interactions

Antacids might interact with other medications by reducing their effectiveness or influencing how well they are absorbed. This is particularly true for medications that require an acidic stomach environment to break down and absorb into the bloodstream. Be sure to discuss any potential drug interactions with your health care provider before adding antacids to your medication regimen.

It's important to note that overdosing on antacids can have serious side effects. Because the ingredients contain minerals like calcium, misusing or overusing these medications can cause elevated levels of calcium in the bloodstream and serious side effects like nausea, vomiting, kidney stones and cognitive changes.

Who Should Take Antacids?

Folks who have mild GERD and don't need a prescription medication to manage it may benefit from over-the-counter antacids. Antacids are made for folks who are experiencing occasional indigestion or heartburn, commonly felt as a burning sensation in your chest or throat. However, some people experience “silent heartburn”—meaning they don’t have strong symptoms of burning or indigestion—and may also benefit from this medication. Other unique situations might include pregnancy, where the pressure of carrying a child in your abdomen can increase the amount of acid reflux you're experiencing. This is a short-term situation where using an antacid could be helpful. However, pregnant people should always consult with their health care provider before adding a new medication.

Who Should Avoid Antacids?

Antacids are generally considered safe for most folks when used as directed, but there are a few groups of people who may need to limit or avoid them. People with kidney disease, impaired kidney function, high blood pressure or congestive heart failure may be contraindicated for this medication due to its sodium content and mineral content like magnesium and calcium. Depending on your situation, your doctor may recommend one form over another.

Other Ways to Relieve Acid Reflux

Whether you’re not interested in taking medication or you're looking for more natural solutions, there are lifestyle changes that can help improve your acid reflux. Different strategies work for different people, and you may need to do some trial and error to find out what is going to work best for you. Some potentially helpful strategies include:

  • Identify triggers: For many, trigger foods like spicy food, caffeine and alcohol can be instigators of extra acid production.

  • Meal timing: Eating late at night or lying down after eating can contribute to some of the “pressure” pushing acid upwards into the esophagus.

  • Weight loss: Weight loss is another factor that may help improve acid reflux. The weight we carry in our midsection can increase the amount of pressure in our abdomen and push acid upward, creating heartburn.

  • Stress management: Stress alone can increase acid production and worsen GERD symptoms. Improving your stress levels via regular exercise, yoga and meditation may help improve acid reflux symptoms. If you are having trouble managing stress, talk to your health care provider to identify the best ways to receive support.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is long-term use of antacids harmful?

Prolonged use of antacids can have negative side effects that may lead to health concerns, like diarrhea, constipation, acid rebound and some medication interactions—particularly if you are over-relying on these medications. Plus, relying on these drugs might mean that you're ignoring underlying symptoms and delaying proper diagnosis and treatment.

How long can you safely take antacids?

While everyone's health situation is unique, antacids are meant for short-term use to provide relief from heartburn and indigestion symptoms. Most of these medications come with a disclaimer that if you use them for longer than two weeks and symptoms have not improved, talk with your doctor.

The Bottom Line

Remember that antacids can soothe—but can’t treat—gastrointestinal issues like heartburn, gas and bloating. In the short term, they can be a great way to provide relief for the unpleasant symptoms you may be experiencing. However, if you find yourself relying on them regularly for more than a few weeks, consult with your doctor to see if there is a medical cause of your symptoms that you can treat.

Read the original article on Eating Well.