There’s nothing worse than feeling terrible after eating an amazing meal. Post-meal bloating, pain, diarrhea, constipation, a heavy feeling in your stomach, and heartburn are so common today that we think it’s normal. I’ve got news for you; it’s not normal. It’s most likely a case of low stomach acid and you CAN do something about it! Yes, that’s right, your stomach acid could be TOO LOW severely affecting not only your digestion but many other functions in your body that may seem entirely unrelated.
According to the book Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You by Jonathan Wright MD, as many as 90% of Americans are dealing with hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid) or achlorhydria (no stomach acid), many of which are either unaware or being treated for having too much stomach acid, only furthering the problem!
THE TYPICAL DIAGNOSIS
Yep, if you describe these symptoms to your doctor, they may tell you the reason for your indigestion and heartburn is from too much stomach acid and give you acid-blocking drugs such as Tagamet or Zantac. These are some of the most prescribed drugs in the pharmaceutical market, making billions of dollars per year for the companies that sell them.
The problem with this diagnosis is that, for most of us, the opposite is true. We are deficient in stomach acid, and it is a VITAL part of our overall health and well-being.
The stomach is a highly acidic environment (with a pH of 1.5-3.0) where the food we eat, particularly protein, gets broken down and prepared for absorption by every cell of our body. The proper pH of the stomach then signals the rest of the digestive cascade to continue.
The pancreas and small intestine are called into action to further the break down of the protein, fats, and carbohydrates and deliver them to the cells. Without the high acidity in the stomach, the digestive flow is compromised. This system breaks down causes a dramatic trickle-down effect into all other bodily systems and is the root cause of many other health issues.
By simply increasing stomach acid, so the pH in the stomach is at its optimal level, your meal will be processed correctly, absorbed and assimilated by the body, and the rest of you will stay healthy and happy! As a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, I help people every single day get back to this optimal state of digestion and see first-hand how simple changes can dramatically improve the life of my clients!
Let’s take a look at how low stomach acid can affect so much more than just the digestive system.
Could low stomach acid be to blame?
abnormal digestive function – bloating – diarrhea – constipation – IBS
When stomach acid is insufficient, not only are proteins not properly broken down in the stomach, but the rest of the digestive cascade is compromised. If the chyme (the partially broken down food paste) in the stomach is not acidic enough, the pyloric sphincter will not open. This mechanism allows the food to pass from the stomach into the small intestine to continue digestion. If the pyloric sphincter does not open, the chyme stays in the stomach too long and begins to degenerate.
Proteins putrefy, carbohydrates ferment, and fat becomes rancid. This causes bloating, pain, fullness, and constipation. Once the chyme does make it into the small intestine, the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) which is needed to trigger the release of bile from the gallbladder for fat digestion will not be released without the chyme being at the proper pH.
The release of secretin is also compromised which stimulates the pancreas to release critical digestive enzymes and sodium bicarbonate to bring the pH of the chyme back to neutral before heading on to the large intestine. Once the maldigested food makes it into the large intestine, the healthy gut flora is disrupted, the tissue becomes inflamed, and harmful bacteria thrive.
low energy – sleepy and sluggish
Vitamin B12 is responsible for nerve and brain function. Depression, sleepiness, and that sluggish feeling arise when we are B12 deficient. This vital vitamin enters the body attached to protein and needs to be cleaved off for absorption to take place. Hydrochloric acid and pepsin are necessary in sufficient quantity to complete the separation of protein and vitamin B12 in the stomach.
muscle wasting – hair loss – aging skin – cracked/peeling fingernails
Amino acids are the compounds that make up proteins and what are left once proteins are broken down in the digestive system. They are essential to the growth and development of many different structures in the body including muscle fibers, hair structure, nails, bones, skin, nerves, neurotransmitters, and hormones. They are also the creators of collagen and elastin, the binding substances needed for clear, wrinkle-free, healthy skin. With low stomach acid and the inability to properly break down proteins, amino acids aren’t available in the body to do all of these critical functions which will show up in the health of your hair, skin, and nails.
Additionally, the body will break down muscle in an attempt to get the essential amino acids. This leads to decreased muscle mass, strength, and potential weight loss.
depression – mood disturbances
The gut is often considered our second brain with the majority of our neurotransmitters and serotonin (the happy chemical) being made in the gut. Amino acids are needed to build neurotransmitters which are the brain’s “messengers.” Decreased stomach acid = decreased amino acids = decreased serotonin production = decreased happiness!
leaky gut – autoimmune diseases – food allergies and sensitivities
Without the stomach being at the proper highly acidic level needed to break down food completely, large amounts of protein go undigested, making their way down through the digestive tract into the small intestine. The lining of the small intestine becomes inflamed, and the once tightly-bound villi that line and protect the walls loosen up and create holes.
This is known as intestinal permeability or leaky gut. Now, the undigested proteins pass through the intestinal lining and into the bloodstream. As our body is meant to do, it attacks these foreign invaders that have made it into our bloodstream. This attack causes an allergic response. In cases of food allergies, the body now considers this undigested food particle to be an allergen and will attack it anytime it comes back into the bloodstream. A food allergy is born and will continue until the intestinal walls are sealed again and the food is unable to make its way into the bloodstream.
In cases of autoimmune diseases, the immune system continues this attack on other cells in the body that look similar to the invading proteins, causing otherwise healthy tissues and organs to be under attack. This can happen to many different tissues within the body such as the thyroid (Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease), the joints (rheumatoid arthritis), the GI tract (Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis), the nerves (multiple sclerosis), and many many others. According to Wright, “A mainstay for treatment for ANY autoimmune disease is the examination for and (when found) treatment of low stomach acid and other digestive malfunction.”
dysbiosis – bacterial imbalance – candida, parasites, and fungal overgrowth
Stomach acid kills harmful bacteria. A healthy digestive system is a home to billions of bacteria, the majority of which are good. However, even the healthiest of guts are still home to harmful bacteria. These healthy guts can manage the bad bacteria and keep it in check, allowing for ‘bacterial harmony.’ Problems arise when these bad bacteria begin to thrive and grow, make a home in the gut, and take over the good bacteria. So, how do these bad guys get in? Through a stomach, with a pH higher than 5. (Remember, normal pH of a healthy stomach is between 1.5-3.0.) The acidity in a stomach that’s not producing enough HCL becomes a breeding ground for bacteria.
It takes a lot of nutrients to build hormones, but the most essential nutrient needed is fat and more specifically cholesterol. When the stomach is not in the optimal pH range, the gall bladder is not triggered to release bile which breaks down fats. Therefore, the fats go undigested, and the building blocks of hormones are absent. All hormone levels will take a hit including testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen.
acne – rosacea – dermatitis
Acne and other skin manifestations have a high correlation to the health of the gut. When the gut is leaky, foreign objects and bacteria make its way into the bloodstream, causing an allergic reaction. This can manifest in the skin in the form of acne, rosacea, and dermatitis.
Bacteria thriving in a stomach without enough hydrochloric acid emit an order that shows itself in your breath!
Calcium is a super essential mineral to many processes in the body including maintaining bone strength. Calcium cannot be adequately broken down and absorbed without enough stomach acid. Calcium deficiency leads to brittle bones that can easily break, which is known as osteoporosis.
Many studies have been done over the past 100 years linking RA patients and low stomach acid. According to Wright, “People with rheumatoid arthritis have an extremely high rate of atrophic gastritis associated with low stomach acid compared with normal individuals.”
blood sugar imbalance – sugar cravings
Amino acids have another function besides being essential building blocks for every part of our body. They also maintain blood sugar and proper insulin levels. When protein breaks down is compromised, and available amino acids are low, blood sugar levels can become imbalanced, and sugar cravings will ensue.
Another important nutrient that will not be adequately absorbed is iron. Deficient iron absorption can zap muscle strength and drain stamina, leaving you feeling weak and tired. According to Wright, “it comes as no surprise that when supplementary HCL is given to people with anemia and low stomach acid, their iron absorption improves and their anemia disappears.”
insistent hunger – uncontrollable appetite – weight gain – inability to lose weight
As described in this post, the trickle-down effect from low stomach acid can lead to many seemingly unrelated conditions such as nutrient deficiency, malabsorption, hormonal imbalance, muscle wasting, and adrenal fatigue. All of these contribute in their way to an unhealthy, sluggish metabolism and overeating. For example, if the body is not sufficiently producing the hormone ghrelin (the hunger hormone), you won’t get the ‘full’ signal during a meal and will likely overeat. Or, if your body is perceiving a state of high stress causing high levels of cortisol, the appetite is known to increase during this time. The body’s perceived starvation from not properly absorbing the food that we eat is another reason for increased appetite.
asthma – allergies
Known to be an inflammatory reaction in the lungs due to allergens, asthma can be traced back to the health of the gut and more importantly to the pH of the stomach and food allergies. In response to this Wright say “…a vicious circle soon ensues in which an allergic reaction to food inflames the gastric and intestinal linings, inhibiting HCL secretion and promoting allergic reactions all over the body, not just to foods, but to inhalants and microorganisms, as well.”
high cortisol – adrenal fatigue
Adrenal fatigue can be considered the “stress illness.” Now that we’ve gone through this list of things that can go wrong with your health when you have low stomach acid, wouldn’t you agree that any of them would put a significant level of stress on your body?! Food isn’t being broken down which leaves us malnourished and unable to properly build every cell in our body to regulate every function of our being. The body sees this as a stressful situation and engages in ‘fight or flight’ mode, bringing cortisol into play to help out in this time of stress.
Does this sound like you?
I’ve got great news for you! There are several things you can easily incorporate into your daily routine to help support your digestion and increase natural stomach acid production.
- Drink water with lemon away from meals.
- Dilute 1 tsp of apple cider vinegar into 2-3 ounces of water and drink 15 minutes before a meal.
- Take three deep breaths before your first bite. This will help you get into ‘rest and digest’ mode which is needed for the proper secretion of gastric juices.
- Eat slowly and chew thoroughly. Aim to chew each bite 30 times. Put your fork down between bites.
- Avoid drinking a significant amount of liquid during the meal. This will dilute the gastric juices.
Most importantly, supporting your digestion with betaine HCL with pepsin supplementation is the most effective way to get significant and immediate symptom relief. Found in almost all health food stores, this supplement provides the stomach acid that is missing in the same form as the stomach produces naturally, hydrochloric acid.
How to supplement with Betaine HCL
- Get a high-quality source of betaine HCL. This is the one I recommend and use in my practice.
- Take 1-2 pills after a few bites of food.
- Every meal after that, increase your dose by one pill until you feel a warming sensation in your abdomen.
- Once you feel this sensation, drop back down to the amount you took at the meal prior. This is your dose that should be taken with every meal to support your digestion properly.
- After supplementing for some time, you will find that your regular dose now causes the same warming sensation. This is a sign that your body is re-learning how to produce HCL on its own and you can lessen your dosage.
- It is not uncommon at the start of your supplementation to be taking quite a few pills, up to 8, per meal without getting the warming sensation.
- If you took too much betaine HCL and feel a burning discomfort, you can take 1/2 tablespoon of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) in a small glass of water, that quickly neutralizes the stomach acid and eliminates the discomfort.
Note: if you are currently taking any anti-inflammatory medication such as corticosteroids (prednisone), aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, etc.) or other NSAIDs, do not supplement with HCL.
As you can see, a highly acidic stomach is the key to proper digestion. Without it, serious health issues can ensue. Many of us are in a current state of stomach acid deficiency, and the current medical protocol is to treat the SYMPTOMS with potent medications, furthering the damage. Instead, let’s fix the ROOT CAUSE, starting with proper digestion, and begin true healing.