An analysis of data from more than eight million people found that the side effects of heartburn drugs may cause allergies in people. Researchers said the medications that target stomach acid also disrupt functions of the immune system.
The new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, shows the effects of losing the balance of acids and enzymes in the stomach. The research team suggested heartburn drugs reduce stomach acid that then opens a path for undigested food to travel out of the stomachs.
That opening then triggers the immune system to consider those foods as threats.
“Food allergens are large proteins,” Caroline Sokol, a physician and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, told CNN. “If you do not have any acid… you can imagine you’ve got these big chunks of protein that might get through a leaky gut wall.”
Sokol, who was not part of the study, added when the immune system detects those whole proteins, the body becomes at increased risk of developing allergies.
“What we get in terms of food and bacteria is actually denatured and degraded in normal stomach function,” Erika Jensen-Jarolim, lead study author and a professor at the Medical University of Vienna, told CNN. “When you take anti-acids, this function is impaired, and we have a wide-open window, and many things enter the intestines that are not good.”
Researchers analyzed data from health insurance data of patients in Austria. They said there has been a significant increase in the use of anti-allergy medications by people who also take prescribed stomach acid inhibitors.
Jensen-Jarolim started to study allergy risks when a middle-aged man developed a food allergy for the first time due to heartburn drugs. The man reported swelling in his mouth and throat after eating caviar for the second time.
The researcher then conducted lab tests with mice. Results confirmed that anti-acid medications could trigger allergies. Data from millions of people also supported the findings.
However, Jensen-Jarolim’s team did not determine how the medications directly trigger the development of allergies. But she noted their study should spread awareness.
Allergies are considered the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S. There are over 50 million Americans suffering from the condition annually, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.