More than 60 million Americans experience heartburn/reflux symptoms at least once a month, according to the American Gastroenterological Association. We spend $1.4 billion every year on over-the-counter heartburn remedies and an additional $8 to $12 billion on prescription relief.
One Yale researcher has added another product to the shelves, hoping to earn a slice of the heartburn pie. Dr. John Geibel, chairman of the Department of Surgery at Yale University School of Medicine, has been researching gastrointestinal disorders for nearly 25 years.
"We think we've found a novel way to approach a really old problem. People have had ingestion issues for millions of years unfortunately, and this attacks it from a whole different angle. And, so far, it doesn’t seem to have any side effects."
The secret? Zinc.
Current heartburn remedies
There are three types of mainstream over-the-counter products to treat heartburn. Some are also available in prescription strength.
Antacids: Often the first remedy that people reach for, these medications (Tums, Alka-Seltzer, Rolaids) provide fast-acting, short-term relief. They work by neutralizing the acid in your stomach.
H2 blockers: These drugs reduce the amount of acid in your body by blocking histamines that produce acid. They usually work within about an hour and the effects are long lasting. Examples include ranitidine (Zantac) and famotidine (Pepcid).
Proton pump inhibitors: These medications block the pump in the stomach that makes acid. It takes a while for them to work, but the drugs are usually very effective and very long lasting. PPIs include esomeprazole (Nexium), omeprazole (Prilosec) and lansoprazole (Prevacid).
There are problems with taking too many of these drugs, says Geibel. Your stomach wants to be somewhat acidic. That's nature's way of being prepared to fight harmful microbes that might be in something you eat or drink.
"When you keep taking antacids, for example, you end up training your stomach to chronically produce more acid," says Geibel. "Your body knows it needs to be at a particular level to be protective, and when it doesn't stay there, your body says, 'I've got to correct that.' "
Similarly, when you take H2 blockers for an extended period of time, says Geibel, your body may respond by releasing gastrin, another hormone that triggers the production of acid. And with PPIs, people can have breakthrough problems where acid production may be stimulated again — perhaps due to a different kind of acid-making pump that takes up the slack for the pump that is being "turned off" by the drug.
Yale's road to zinc
Geibel said he and his team were looking at how these other heartburn drugs worked when they came up with their zinc discovery. They found that PPIs changed the concentrations of necessary metals in the parietal cells of the body. They decided to experiment with PPIs and various metals and just happened to start with zinc.
The control group — with no acid-reducing PPI medication but with zinc — got no acid secretions. They did the same trial without zinc and got acid. They added zinc again and the acid was gone.
"So we figured zinc must be doing something," said Geibel. "We did a whole bunch of experiments and to make a long complicated research story short, we found that zinc resulted in no acid production."
After animal research, Geibel spearheaded two clinical trials involving med students. When they took zinc or a solution with zinc, their acid levels dropped and stayed there for an extended amount of time.
The studies were small — one had 12 people, the other had 35 — so it hasn't had a huge amount of testing and no more testing is necessary because it's not a pharmaceutical. But Yale University put its considerable weight behind the discovery, took out a patent, and the product is now available as TummyZen online and in nearly 100 health food stores nationwide.
Who is this for?
Yale MBA student Hasan Ansari worked with Geibel to market the product and is CEO of its company, Eli Nutrition.
"I personally have heartburn, and Dr. Geibel told me to take this stuff and try it at home. TummyZen is the only thing I take still today," he said.
Geibel and Ansari are quick to point out the zinc-based product is not for people diagnosed with serious GI issues who might need prescription medication or even a strong over-the-counter remedy. It's for people who have occasional, acute issues and don't need the power of a stronger product.
Says Ansari, "If you have a once-in-awhile heartburn problem, you don’t have to go get a prescription drug meant for those with medically diagnosed acid reflux."
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