Omeprazole: Cancer Risk and Alternatives

A closer look at the connection between omeprazole (Prilosec) and cancer

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Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. PPIs like omeprazole (Prilosec), rabeprazole, lansoprazole, and esomeprazole are used to treat helicobacter pylori infection, acid reflux, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Emerging evidence from a number of studies suggests there is an association between long-term use of proton pump inhibitors and the development of gastric cancer. If needed, alternatives to PPIs are available.

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PPIs and Cancer

When digesting food, the stomach uses gastric acid to break food down. During this process, cells in the stomach called G cells produce a hormone called gastrin, which signals to other cells to pump acid. PPIs stop acid from being produced.

The body responds by recognizing there isn't enough acid and seeks to make more by producing more gastrin. Too much gastrin has been found to promote the growth of gastrointestinal tumors.

Some studies have suggested that gastric-acid suppression from PPIs leads to:

  • Elevated levels of gastrin
  • Inflammation of the stomach lining
  • Bacterial overgrowth

This in turn may play a role in the development of cancer in the gastrointestinal system.

A 2019 study found that even when helicobacter pylori infection was eradicated, the long-term use of PPIs was still associated with a twofold increased risk for gastric cancer.

Other Risks From PPIs

Prolonged use of PPIs has been linked to:

  • Reduced B12 levels
  • Increased risk of pneumonia
  • Increased risk of hip fractures
  • Increased risk of dementia
  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • Increased risk of chronic kidney disease

Should I Stop Using Prilosec?

PPIs like lansoprazole (Prevacid) and omeprazole (Prilosec) are available over the counter without a prescription. But long term use can be problematic.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says over-the-counter (OTC) PPIs should only be taken for the 14-day course up to three times a year.

In some cases, medications called an H2 blocker like Pepcid or Tagamet may be appropriate. After a week of taking an H2 blocker instead of PPIs, the PPIs will be out of the system. It is then possible to switch to OTC antacids on an as-needed basis.

However, some people may still experience difficult symptoms after coming off PPIs and may need to go back on them at a higher dosage.

Before making any changes to medications or dosages, patients who are on PPIs should discuss with their doctor whether they should continue taking the medication, or whether other options might be appropriate.

Stopping PPIs Abruptly Could Cause Rebound Effects

If you have been taking PPIs for at least a few weeks, you should not stop taking the medication suddenly. Doing so may cause a rebound effect with stomach acid.

Alternatives to PPIs

Although PPIs are the most common medication prescribed in the U.S., there are alternative options available. These can include lifestyle modifications, alternative therapies, and other medications.

Other Medications

There are other medications that can be used instead of PPIs in the treatment of conditions like acid reflux.

H2 blockers are medications that lower the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. They are absorbed quickly and the resulting acid suppression lasts for several hours after the medications have been taken. H2 blockers can also work to counter the effect of acid on the esophagus that causes heartburn.

H2 blockers include:

  • Cimetidine (Tagamet)
  • Ranitidine (Zantac)
  • Nizatidine (Axid)
  • Famotidine (Pepcid)

Antacids may be appropriate in some cases. These drugs work by neutralizing stomach acid. They are the oldest treatment for heartburn on the market. Most antacids are a mixture of aluminum and magnesium hydroxide. Some may also contain sodium bicarbonate.

Lifestyle Changes

As well as medications, lifestyle changes can in some cases assist with conditions treated by PPIs like acid reflux or GERD.

Lifestyle changes that may help include:

  • Avoiding spicy, fatty, or acidic foods
  • Losing weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Eating smaller meals
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Raising the head of the bed at night for sleep
  • Avoid food and drinks that might trigger reflux like citrus, chocolate, mints, coffee, alcohol, and tomato-based products

Alternative Therapy

Some alternative therapies that may be helpful as an alternative for PPIs include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Herbal remedies

Herbal remedies that may be helpful include:

  • Chamomile: Chamomile tea can soothe the digestive tract, but shouldn't be taken by those who have a ragweed allergy.
  • Licorice: This is believed to help the coating of the esophagus, to protect it from irritation due to stomach acid.
  • Ginger: This has been used for centuries to aid in digestion and as a remedy for heartburn.

Prevention

There are a number of steps that can be taken that may help avoid acid reflux or GERD and could assist in avoiding the need for medications.

Some ways to prevent acid reflux or GERD in the first place include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight: An increased weight can increase the risk of acid reflux and GERD. Losing weight if overweight can help avoid this, as can maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Don't smoke: Nicotine is the ingredient in tobacco that makes smoking addictive. It is believed nicotine also relaxed the esophageal sphincter which can lead to reflux or heartburn.
  • Avoid certain foods and drinks: As mentioned above, avoiding spicy, fatty, or triggering foods and drinks like tomatoes, mint, or coffee can help avoid reflux.
  • Avoid carbonated beverages: Bubbly drinks like soda and sparkling water can cause burping, which sends acid to the esophagus. Drinking flat drinks like water will help avoid this.
  • Stay upright after eating: Sitting upright or standing after eating helps keep acid in the stomach. Eating three hours before going to bed will help avoid reflux.
  • Avoid speedy activity after eating: Vigorous exercise or workouts that involve bending over can cause acid to rise to the esophagus. Wait a couple of hours after eating before working out vigorously.
  • Sleep with your head elevated: When sleeping, your head should be six to eight inches higher than your feet. This can be achieved through a foam wedge to support the upper parts of the body or using bed risers on the legs of the bed near the head.
  • Check medications: Some medicines can relax the sphincter, causing reflux. Others can irritate the esophagus. Always speak with your doctor before discontinuing or changing any medications.

A Word From Verywell

If you are in doubt about whether proton pump inhibitors are the right medications for you, speak with your doctor. It is important not to cease taking these medications suddenly if you have been on them for a while. If appropriate, your doctor may suggest alternative options to PPIs. It is important GERD is controlled and monitored by a doctor, as uncontrolled GERD can pose serious health risks.

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