The Heartburn That Wouldn’t Quit

Health Tips / The Heartburn That Wouldn’t Quit

Dierdre had written “I want to get off my heartburn medicine” on her WholeHealth Chicago intake form. This, by the way, was a tele-med appointment. I’ve actually never met her in person. We changed Dierdre’s name to respect her privacy, but her story is worth sharing.

Dierdre was in her 30s and had been working at home at one of the many jobs people can do sitting at a laptop, listening to Spotify except during Zoom meetings and today’s visit.

Her medical history provided some clues to the issues at hand. She’d been reminded by her mother quite a few times that she’d been a difficult baby, with lots of colic, diarrhea, and spit-ups until the pediatrician advised eliminating dairy products. Doing this also stopped her ear infections in their tracks.

When Dierdre was a few years older, she’d been able to start eating some dairy products again, but she developed issues with eczema and, a while later, mild asthma. Skilled with an inhaler by age six, Dierdre’s symptoms slowly settled down so that by her teens she was left with seasonal allergies and rare eczema flare-ups during her PMS days.

By her 20s, allegedly the best decade for all of us when we look back on our lives, Dierdre thought she was out of the woods.

But then her heartburn began

She went online, read about GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disorder), and tried one of the many proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), a group that includes Nexium and Protonix. Dierdre told me that after a year, she’d tried them all, but she also developed some other symptoms along the way. Food felt “stuck” as it traveled down to her stomach. She had a persistent discomfort in her chest. But mainly she wasn’t enjoying eating anymore.

Dierdre said that even though the PPIs weren’t giving her 100% relief, they were better than nothing so she’d been reluctant to stop them altogether. When she went to her primary care doctor, he prescribed an extra-strength PPI (Dexilant), which actually did seem a little more potent, but coverage for it was later denied by her insurer, who balked at the $10-per-pill price.

Her doctor told her that when she found the right PPI and avoided the foods that seemed to trigger her symptoms, she could stay on the PPI for the rest of her life.

Dangers of PPIs

What finally pulled the trigger on PPIs altogether was when another of the heartburn meds Dierdre was using, Zantac, was pulled from drugstore shelves because it contained a contaminant that caused cancer.

During our consult, several facts stood out.
–First, the PPIs had never really helped all that much and Dierdre was now into her second year of using them.
–Second, she was convinced that certain foods made her symptoms worse, and not foods that were particularly spicy or notorious for causing heartburn. She just wasn’t sure which ones were triggers.
–Third, she was now having chest pain and upper abdominal pain that wasn’t responding to anything–not antacids, water, or TUMS.

Taking all this together, I suspected she had some chronic food allergies and that frequent exposure to these foods was triggering inflammation in her esophagus, a condition called eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE).

 If you Google EoE, you’ll actually find it listed on the National Organization for Rare Diseases website, which is ridiculous because if there’s one thing that can be said about EoE it’s that it’s pretty common. The problem is that too many people keep chowing down the PPIs (with the encouragement of their doctors) and doing this makes the condition less likely to go away.

More on EoE

The other condition that increases eosinophil counts is intestinal parasites. If a patient comes to us with undiagnosed bowel symptoms, especially chronic diarrhea, and has a high eosinophil count, we think parasites.

A diagnosis of EoE is actually pretty straightforward once the doctor realizes that PPIs are not helping.

I referred Deirdre to the gastroenterologist we use at WholeHealth Chicago, Dzifaa Lotsu, MD, over in Greektown, mainly for his professional expertise and willingness to spend a lot of time with patients discussing his findings. That he is open to integrative medicine is very helpful as well. (It’s also nice to reward yourself with a delicious Greek meal after your visit, since most of the procedures done by a gastroenterologist require fasting.)

Dr. Lotsu used Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD), also called upper endoscopy, to view Dierdre’s inflamed esophagus and took several biopsies, each of which showed many eosinophils when examined under the microscope.

Although the conventional treatment for EoE is to give steroids to reduce inflammation (you literally spray a steroid asthma inhaler in your mouth and swallow it–yes, it tastes awful), long-term steroid use has a host of side effects.

Locating the source

Integrative and functional practitioners prefer a simpler approach. Dierdre would start on an eating program that eliminates the Big Six: dairy, egg, corn, gluten, nuts (including soy), and seafood along with all foods containing chemicals, additives, and preservatives.

At the same time, we sent a blood sample from Dierdre to one of the labs specializing in food allergy testing. Since these tests are occasionally not covered by insurance, we keep an eye on price. I’ve been using US BioTek for more than 20 years. Their testing for 96 foods with antibody response (IgA, IgG, IgE) for around $250 is a relative bargain since insurance rarely covers it.

Elimination diets can be remarkably effective in treating EoE. Dierdre remains on her Big Six elimination and feels dramatically better.

If a few weeks, Dr. Lotsu will repeat his EGD and if the eosinophil presence has declined (which I suspect it will), Deirdre can begin a slow reintroduction of one food at a time to determine which is the real culprit.

Her food allergy blood test might prove helpful in uncovering foods she might not have suspected, but nothing is so accurate, diagnostically speaking, as when the patient herself says something like “Whenever I eat (such-and-such) all my symptoms return.”

Dierdre wanted to get off her heartburn meds, and now she is.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

4 thoughts on “The Heartburn That Wouldn’t Quit

    Hi to all, just to let you know I’m in Ireland and would not be aware of the alternatives given in previous testimonials stated above. I would go so far as to say my doctor and consultant would not be familiar with the options outlined here in the treatment of gerd, Barrett’s, and pyrol for which I have been diagnosed several years ago. I too am on PPI meds, and motilium for the past number of years. As well as the above symptoms, my lower eosophagal splinter is open all the time giving me constant regurgitation and nausea after each meal however small that meal is. My appetite is almost non existent and I’m convinced damage was done to my stomach some years ago during an endoscopy that since then my appetite changed overnight. I’ve had endescopies prior to that one with no issues with my appetite. Of course when I mentioned this to my doctor and consultant it was dismissed that the endescopy has nothing to do with my change in appetite. As I write I am at a loss as to what to do next given I’m 66 years old I would like to have a better quality of life for my later years. Thanking you. Joe Johnson.

    Joseph Johnson
    Posted December 17, 2020 at 5:51 am

      Hi Joseph –
      We’d be happy to try to help you sort all of this out. Please consider scheduling a telemedicine visit with one of our functional medicine practitioners. This can be arranged by contacting our patient services at +001-773-296-6700.

      My best,
      Dr M

      Posted December 28, 2020 at 10:07 pm

    GERD,heartburn,esophagitis are all so common that in some ways seems normal. I had a patient several years ago that had been taking the purple pill for five years. He had come in with a musculoskeletal problem, but the initial intake also revealed the heartburn issue. I tried so hard to convince him to change the approach to his problem and that the PPI’s were weakening his bone structure and possibly causing leaky gut. He would have none of my “strange point of view”. He never came back.
    Thank you, Dr. Edelberg for all that you have taught me, and your continued mini lessons.

    Dr. David W Bailey, DC
    Posted September 2, 2020 at 9:10 pm

    I’m 39 and have suffered for what I believe to be my whole life with these symptoms and worse, GERD and CFS. Even PPIs helped very little. My primary suspected Barrett’s disease. My GI specialist did tests and scopes and found irritation in the stomach (labeled GERD) and a hiatal hernia but otherwise I was absolutely normal. He suspected my medication at the time metformin was triggering it. I had every test done that Whole Health recommended at the time (2014) and had some interesting findings but everything related to allergies except for mold came back normal. I tried everything to eliminate my GERD. Fast forward, today while I (and especially my insurance) struggle to accept my triggers, Turns out medications, in pill form, most likely the binders in them, are my worst trigger. I can tolerate any meds for about a week before all heck breaks loose. Injectables don’t have this affect. I also can not tolerate alliums, the closer to raw they are the worse the symptoms become. The last is CO2 in beverages, even sparkling water. Avoiding these I almost never get any heartburn or widespread pain and I have more energy. Despite all the tests including those for allergies and sensitivities, this was only discovered through elimination.

    Posted September 1, 2020 at 8:44 am

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