Stomach Acid: Why you absolutely need it. And probably more of it.

Bloating, gas, acid reflux…we have all had it before, and it’s not exactly the most fun, or the most comfortable. It’s normal for these types of things to happen every once in a while. How fast we eat, our stress levels, and what foods we eat all play into these kinds of digestive discomforts. But if this is happening on a more regular basis, there could be another reason. Well, there could be lots of reasons, but one common reason that we often overlook is our lack of stomach acid.

Upon first thought, stomach acid may seem like a bad thing, but it is actually what you need in order to digest your food properly. And most of us (around 90% of Americans) actually produce too little stomach acid. Too little stomach acid can result from chronic stress, a poor diet, eating too fast, frequent use of acid blocking medications and other medication, or heavy alcohol use.

Stomach Acid: Why you absolutely need it. And probably more of it.
Image from Harvard Health

When stomach acid is chronically low, several things have the possibility of happening:

Acid Reflux/GERD/Heartburn
I know it seems counterintuitive to think that acid reflux or GERD comes from a lack of stomach acid since it seems like too much acid would be the issue, but hear me out. When you have insufficient stomach acid levels to digest food, the fats start to rancidify, proteins putrefy and carbs begin to ferment. And what happens when things ferment or start to go bad? Bubbles are produced, right? So that’s similar to what happens in your stomach. The partially digested food is just sitting in your stomach and fermenting, which leads to the reflux of food going back up your esophagus. The esophagus is not made to handle acid, which causes the burning feeling.

The reason acid-blocking medication or antacids seem to help acid reflux is because they either neutralize the acid or suppress acid production so that it doesn’t burn the esophagus. So yes, it may help to relieve your symptoms. But that’s just it. It will never fix the problem. Because if acid reflux is caused by lack of stomach acid, constantly suppressing or neutralizing that acid will only keep your stomach acid low. That means that you may never have the stomach acid levels needed to properly digest your food, absorb its nutrients, kill off unwanted bacteria and have an overall healthy GI system. Taking an antacid every once in a while won’t hurt, but taking them constantly could end up doing your body more harm than good.

Stomach Acid: Why you absolutely need it. And probably more of it.
Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Bacteria Overgrowth
Most bacteria cannot live very long in a highly acidic environment, so when we have a proper pH in the stomach (pH of 1.5-3.0), then the bacteria or parasites that enters our body through our food or environment can be killed quickly. If our stomach acid is too low, the microorganisms can survive in our stomach, causing stomach pain, diarrhea or constipation. If something more serious enters you like certain strains of E.Coli or Salmonella, and stomach acid is too low to kill these bad buys, you can experience wayyy more serious symptoms and illnesses. (This is one reason why I always take HCL with Pepsin capsules with me when I travel overseas since the food is usually more questionable.)

Nutritional Deficiencies
Too little stomach acid can also result in deficiencies in amino acids, iron, copper, zinc, calcium, vitamin B12 and folic acid. If food is not broken down as it should be from insufficient levels of stomach acid, your body cannot access and absorb the nutrients from the food you are eating.

Other chronic digestive issues
The pH of the stomach triggers a cascade of enzymes to be released throughout the GI tract to further break down our food. However, if the pH is too alkaline, then these enzymes will never be released and food will continue to travel through our digestive system only partially digested. Once in the small intestines, the large food particles can wear down the lining of the intestinal wall, eventually passing through the intestinal lining and into the bloodstream. Since these particles are larger than they should be, the body will not recognize them, eliciting an inappropriate immune response. This is what the term “Leaky Gut” or “Intestinal Permeability” refers too. Food “leaks” through the intestinal lining and into the bloodstream. This is a common reason for food sensitivities.

In addition, as these partially digested foods continue through the GI tract, they continue to ferment. In the large intestine, this can cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria, disrupting the healthy bacteria that should be living and thriving there. This can then lead to IBS related symptoms or other chronic inflammatory issues.

Stomach Acid: Why you absolutely need it. And probably more of it.
Drinking lemon with water is a great way to stimulate the production of stomach acid.     Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

So what can be done?
If you think that you may have low stomach acid, there are a few natural ways that that can encourage acid production. The first one is to drink water with lemon, especially in the morning and before your meals. The enzymes in the lemon help to stimulate stomach acid production. The same goes for Apple Cider Vinegar and water…but in my opinion, lemon tastes wayyy better. Eating slowly and chewing your food thoroughly is also helpful. Your body needs to be in a relaxed state in order to digest food properly. Taking Hydrochloric Acid with Pepsin (<<I take this one) can also be helpful. I mentioned above that I always take them when I travel internationally, but I have also found to be helpful when I suspect my stomach acid is low or before a big protein-rich meal. If you go this route, start off slow with one capsule before meals or make sure to work with a practitioner. If you get a warming feeling in your stomach when taking HCL capsules, then that means you have taken to many and should back off. There are many online resources for HCL Challenge tests if you want more guided instruction, but like always, it’s best to work with a trusted practitioner.

Now I’m not saying that low stomach acid is the reason for all digestive issues. There are a lot of things that can play a part in the overall health of your GI tract. However, stomach acid is a huge player in digestion, and low levels affect way more than we typically think about or realize!

**Please note that this post is not intended to treat or diagnose, but only to provide information related to health and wellness.**

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