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Millions of Americans take over the counter painkillers like Advil or Aleve without a second thought for any random ache or pain or cold symptom. What most don't know is that those drugs (called non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) are responsible for over 16,000 deaths a year, more than die from asthma or AIDS.
But there is another less recognized side effect (or should we say effect, because side effects are nothing more than unwanted effects of medication). These drugs damage your gut lining causing a condition responsible for a whole range of ailments from allergies to autoimmune disease. It's called leaky gut.
Here's one girl's sad story:
Sarah is a 5-year-old girl who was brought to Aviva as a patient at The UltraWellness Center by her mom. She came in for the treatment of severe pain and swelling in multiple joints including her ankles, elbows, and fingers.
Walking was painful, as was drawing, one of her favorite activities. Her mom and teachers also noticed that she'd changed from her playful, vibrant self, to a more anxious child.
Sarah was in perfect health until about a year before she came in, at which time she'd developed a bad cold – with fever that persisted on and off for about a week.
The pediatrician instructed Sarah's mom to give her alternating Tylenol and Ibuprofen around the clock to help with the discomfort of fever, and to bring the fever down. This is pretty standard fare in pediatric care
What Doctors Know...And Don't Know...About NSAIDs
Doctors are taught that ibuprofen, a drug in the family of medications called Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), can cause gastritis. In our medical training we learn that it can lead to stomach ulcers that, in extreme cases, can even result in upper gastrointestinal bleeding, the need for surgery, and blood transfusions.
We are generally taught that this is uncommon and only occurs with prolonged use in high doses.
However, what Sarah's pediatrician didn't know, and in fact, what most doctors don't learn in their medical training, is that even shorter term use in regular doses can lead to gut damage and health consequences.
And not just in kids. In all of us.
In fact, many scientific studies conducted over the past two decades show a correlation between NSAID use and leaky gut syndrome (LGS).
According to a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "All the conventional NSAIDs studied were equally associated with small intestinal inflammation apart from aspirin and nabumetone which seem to spare the small bowel." Another study concluded, "NSAIDs are thus shown to disrupt intestinal integrity and long term treatment leads to inflammation of the small intestine."
In this young patient's case long term was just over a week!
Why Leaky Gut is Bad for You
Why is leaky gut bad? Because toxic bacteria and food proteins "leak" into your blood stream triggering inflammation that can lead to allergies, autoimmune disease, depression, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
Not only that, these immune problems may have ramifications beyond just the gut and problems like joint pain. Inflammation can affect the brain and nervous system, causing anxiety (as happened to this patient), depression, irritability, and mood swings.
And if you've got gluten sensitivity? Whoa, baby!
Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs might not be your best option because they can make it worse! These medications increase what is called "leaky gut," or more technically, intestinal permeability. This allows food particles and fragments of the normal and unhealthy gut flora that inhabit our intestines to get across our gut lining, into our blood stream, and trigger food sensitivities, inflammatory, and even autoimmune reactions.
Here's a list of common NSAID medications:
- Advil / Motrin (ibuprofen)
- Aleve (naproxen sodium)
- Naprosyn (naproxen)
- Lodine (etodolac)
- Nalfon (fenoprofen)
- Daypro (oxaprozin)
- Ansaid (flurbiprofen)
- Cambia / Cataflam / Voltaren (diclofenac)
- COX-2 Inhibitors
Functional Medicine: Treating the Root Cause
NSAIDs are generally not treating the root cause of the pain - they are just treating the symptoms. Functional medicine treats the underlying causes of health problems.
In Sarah's case, we quickly went to work healing her gut to treat what had now become arthritis in her joints, anxiety, and constant stomach pain.
We removed all gluten and dairy from her diet, because even for people who weren't previously sensitive, with leaky gut and inflammation, these are common triggers for many people.
We then added in a few simple supplements to begin to heal the gastritis - the inflammation in her stomach - and to heal her leaky gut. These included curcumin (an anti-inflammatory extract from turmeric), DGL, a form of licorice in a chewable tablet that helps to heal gastritis and leaky gut, zinc, and L-glutamine.
A Happy, Pain Free Girl!
Just a couple of short months since coming to our clinic, Sarah is off of her antacid medications. She is joint pain free and her anxiety is resolved. She is once again playing comfortably and happily. Her stomachaches, which were previously severe and occurring multiple times daily are almost entirely gone. Her mom said she's made a 180-degree turn-around and she can't even believe the changes.
We can. We see these kinds of results every day in our practice specializing in functional medicine for anyone with chronic health problems.
That's what happens when we understand and treat the root causes of disease!
Here Are Five Steps to Heal Your Leaky Gut
- Get to the root cause of your pain or inflammation using Functional medicine. Find a Functional medicine doctor near you or see one of us at The UltraWellness Center.
- Stop medications that cause a leaky gut including anti-inflammatories, aspirin, acid blockers, and antibiotics unless absolutely necessary
- Try an elimination diet - no gluten or dairy for six weeks
- Take probiotics - 50-100 billion organisms a day of mixed probiotic strains
- Use nutrients and herbs to heal a leaky gut including digestive enzymes, zinc, glutamine, fish oil, querctin, and curcumin.
 G Sigthorsson, J Tibble, et al. Intestinal permeability and inflammation in patients on NSAIDs. Gut. Oct 1998; 43(4): 506–511.
 Bjarnason I, Zanelli G, et al. Effect of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs on the human small intestine. Drugs. 1986;32 Suppl 1:35-41.
Aviva Romm, MD is a Yale-trained, Board Certified Family Physician, a midwife, herbalist, award-winning author, and internationally respected authority on botanical and integrative/functional medicine for women and children with 30 of clinical experience. A leader in the revolution to transform the current medical system into one that respects the intrinsic healing capacities of the body and nature, she practices Functional Medicine for women and children at The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, MA. Visit Aviva's website www.avivaromm.com for free updates on transforming your health and your life.
Mark Hyman, MD, believes that we all deserve a life of vitality - and that we have the potential to create it for ourselves. Dr. Hyman is a practicing family physician, a seven-time #1 New York Times bestselling author, and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in his field. He is also the founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center, chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine, a medical editor of The Huffington Post, and a regular medical contributor on Katie Couric's TV show, Katie. Visit his website at www.drhyman.com to learn more.