Proper digestion is the source of all health and vitality.
Most if not all chronic conditions are linked to the health of the digestive tract.
If you’ve got health concerns of any kind, look at both what you’re eating and how well your digestive system is functioning.
Here’s a great metaphor for digestion:
Essentially, when you digest food, you’re body is attempting to make a soup. A soup of broken down food, digestive enzymes and acids. When this properly made soup turns into lush compost by the 100 trillion bacteria in your gut and then mixes with the existing soil in the intestines, you have a spectacularly fertile environment in which the roots of your body (veins) can extract nutrients and thrive.
Note: There are many other organs involved in digestion: liver, gallbladder, pancreas, appendix.
The key to proper soup making is the stomach. If this isn’t working, nothing downstream in the process will work either (whether you feel it or not).
Downstream problems include constipation, Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Diverticulitis, Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth, yeast overgrowth (the list goes on), as well as problems you may not associate with digestion (acne, low bone density, etc).
You MUST look upstream, at the first stages of digestion, the stomach being the epicenter.
Sometimes, your symptoms are actually happening upstream as well and you experience reflux or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).
A major reason for this epidemic is that many people are actively disrupting stomach function with bad diet choices and over-the-counter and prescription medications that can affect the stomach lining. Overeating, stress, and alcohol are other stressors to stomach function.
Your stomach needs to be very acidic:
In order for your stomach to function properly (and for YOU to function properly), a robust amount of stomach acid (hydrocholoric acid or HCl) is required. In fact, your stomach produces 2.5L of gastric juice per day. And your stomach needs to maintain a pH of between 1 and 2 (REALLY acidic) to keep you healthy.
You see, digestion is really a chemical process. Sure, there’s a little massaging of the food going on, but digestion requires ACID and ENZYMES to break down our foods so that we can extract the goodness within.
Hydrochloric acid produced in the stomach is vital to this process.
Here’s what your stomach acid does for you:
- Defends against food poisoning, parasites, fungi, bacteria other infections.
- Protects against ulcers by inhibiting the bacterium H. Pylori.
- Allows you to absorb minerals such as calcium, magnesium, copper, zinc, etc.
- Triggers bile release from the gallbladder for proper fat digestion and toxin removal.
- Activates digestive enzymes, such as pepsin (allows for proper protein digestion).
- Stimulates pancreatic enzyme release for further food breakdown.
- Sets the stage for proper digestion in the intestines by ensuring proper acidity and proper breakdown of foods so that the intestines can then do their job.
Signs of LOW stomach acid:
- Reflux (usually not caused by excess acid)
- Undigested food in stools
- Inability to properly digest meat
- Feeling like food “sits” in the stomach
- Candida (yeast) overgrowth
- Malnourishment and various nutrient deficiencies
- Food allergies
- Dry skin
- Autoimmune conditions
- Low bone density
- Chronic intestinal infections
And many more….
Causes of low stomach acid:
- Eating your food sensitivities
- Diet high in refined, processed foods
- Vegetarian eating – low protein/meat diets result in the decline of HCl production (meat will stimulate HCl because processing meat requires good amounts of HCl. If you feel you don’t digest meat well, you’ll want to address the liklihood of low acid production.
- Gastric bypass surgery
- Older than 45 years of age
- Bacterial imbalances in the gut
- Chlorine and flourine in drinking water
- Eating foods known to weaken the lower esophageal sphincter (LES): citrus, hot peppers, tomatoes, caffeine, alcohol (this is not true for everyone with reflux, you must experiment with this for yourself)
- Taking medications that weaken the LES and irritate the gut lining: NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, etc), antibiotics, bronchodilators, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications.
But, I have reflux and my doctor told me to take antacids!
Healthy digestion = robust level of stomach acid.
And reflux is usually due to LOW stomach acid. In most cases of reflux, stomach acid levels are inadequate for proper digestion and your food is not being properly sterilized and broken down.
Four major things can now happen:
- Bacteria can now survive the stomach and overgrow because the stomach is not acidic enough to kill them
- Carbohydrates are not digested properly and they begin to ferment (as sugars tend to do) because the pancreatic enzymes that digest sugars are stimulated by acid. Low acid = low enzyme release.
- Food remains in the stomach longer because it’s not broken down enough to enter the next phase of digestion
- Low stomach acid reduces the “tone” of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), making it more lax and easy to open.
Factors 1+2+3 = bloating, gas and pressure that pushes up on the LES, causing reflux or GERD.
Healthy acid levels = complete digestion + low bacteria levels + stronger LES = calm belly.
The dangers of acid blockers:
One of the biggest “medical sins” in recent history is the overuse of acid blockers (proton pump inhibitors or PPIs). They are the third highest selling class of drugs in this country. Antacids purchased over the counter are equally problematic.
These drugs target the production of HCl in the stomach, reducing it significantly. I think of it as anaesthetizing (numbing) the stomach so you don’t feel anything. The problem is still there, but now you’ve got no way to connect with what’s going on in there. Not only is there no acid to reflux through the LES, but now there’s definitely no acid to digest your food or kill bacteria (hello, H.Pylori and ulcers!).
Here are the very real and serious effects of these drugs:
- Difficulty absorbing nutrients – leads to anemia and nutritional deficiencies that affect every aspect of your health (1)
- Increased risk of bone fractures (2)
- Increased risk of infection by the dangerous bacterium Clostridium dificile (2)
- Increases risk of pneumonia (3)
- Weight gain (4)
- They create dependency on antacids (5)
- They cause your acid producing cells to amp up production (because acid is necessary for proper digestion and immunity) – once you come off the drug, you’re acid production is much higher than before (6)
- Increased risk of esophageal cancer (7)
- Increased risk of demetia (8, 9)
- Creates a hospitable environment for H. Pylori and can worsen H. Pylori infection and gastritis (10)
How to improve stomach acid production and function:
- Chew your food well and take your time when eating and even bless your food (this starts off a healthy digestive process)
- If you have low saliva production/dry mouth, sour and fermented foods like saurkraut and lemon can help stimulate adequate saliva production to improve digestion and stomach acid secretion.
- Try fresh squeezed lemon juice or 1 tsp raw apple cider vinegar in a little water before meals (discontinue if there is discomfort)
- Take actions to restore a healthy bacterial population in the gut – diet, stress, exercise, probiotics, fermented foods, address any infections, avoid artificial sweeteners and concentrated sugars, fructose, etc.
- Consume bone broth to help sooth the gut lining and increase mineral intake.
- Take deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) tablets, which can be very soothing to an irritated stomach lining, including in cases of gastric ulcers.
- Use digestive bitters (found at health food stores) and consume with meals – bitter foods and herbs helps stimulate proper digestion and have been a traditional way of addressing stomach acid decline and digestive insufficiency for time immemorial.
- Consult with a functional practitioner who can guide you on supplementing with a Betaine HCl/pepsin product to help improve acid levels. Do not do this until you have ruled out an H. Pylori infection and are not taking NSAIDs and other medications that irritate the gut lining. Again, consult a health professional.
- Take a general digestive enzyme – you can get these with or without Betaine HCl. If you discover you have an H. Pylori infection or are taking NSAIDs daily, start with a general digestive enzyme without HCl and work with a health professional who can guide you on transitioning to an HCl product.
- And, of course, find ways to manage stress in your life. Walks, deep breathing, meditation, joining social groups, Emotional Freedom Technique, etc.
Nearly 50% of people in the US are taking antacids and PPIs. It is becoming more and more accepted that these over the counter and prescription medications are a huge problem, do nothing to actually solve the underlying causes of reflux and adversely affect digestion all across the digestive tract, not just in the stomach. Their side effects are wide-reaching.
Excess stomach acid is rare. If none of the above suggestions work, you can request a Heidelberg test at your doctor’s office to check your stomach acid levels. You may also have a hiatal hernia, in which case you can confirm this with an ultrasound or visit an osteopathic doctor (DO) or chiropractic doctor (DC) who can assess it from their point of view and do basic adjustments to relieve the pressure.
It’s likely you know someone who is taking these products or has digestive problems linked to low stomach acid. Please share this and help them not only avoid these drugs, but also reverse their symptoms entirely.