Updated: Oct 30, 2020
At this time, I would guess 80-90% of my clients have low stomach acid. Yes - LOW stomach acid! Before I dive into the importance of stomach acid, let's take a quick journey revisiting 8th-grade chemistry class....
To refresh your memory, the pH scale measures how acidic or basic a particular substance is. The more acidic a substance you have, the lower the pH. The more basic, the higher the pH. 0-7 on the pH scale is considered acidic. 8-14 on the pH scale is considered basic.
Guess where stomach acid lies on the pH scale?! It's a whopping 1.5-2.5! In comparison, battery acid is at a 1 on the pH scale. Gastric acid, also known as stomach acid, is VERY acidic and needs to stay at this pH for optimal health.
So how does this apply to nutrition therapy?
Quite often, you might hear people say, "Ohhhhh, it burns! I have too much stomach acid." I guarantee you, this statement is not true. "Having too much stomach acid" is very rare. However, a deficiency of stomach acid, also known as hypochlorhydria, is very common. It is one of the main contributors behind heartburn and acid reflux.
Your gastric acid is made up of hydrochloric acid (HCl) and several enzymes. Your gastric acid is the first line of defense against certain bacteria, viruses, and pathogens, which protects your body from infection. HCl is crucial for digestion, as it initiates the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, such as protein.
The low pH of the stomach acts as a feedback stimulus to keep the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) closed. The LES is an important bundle of muscles that is located at the low end of the esophagus. The LES opens temporarily to allow entry of food into the stomach, but then it needs to close in order to prevent acid and stomach contents from traveling backwards from the stomach. When it does not close properly, this causes a burning sensation/reflux in the esophagus, commonly referred to as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
If hypochlorhydria or GERD are left untreated, a cascade of digestive events can occur, which can ultimately damage the GI tract and affect the body's ability to absorb nutrients. Often times, people self medicate with acid lowering drugs, such as antacids or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). Do pepto-bismal, tums, and prilosec ring a bell?! Although these drugs may provide immediate relief due to the buffering mechanism of the drug, these drugs eventually exacerbate the root cause = continuing to lower stomach acid!
I could go on and on and on about the benefits of adequate stomach acid and the harmful effects of long term PPI and antacid use, but hopefully, by now you have a brief understanding of the two. Let's dive into recognizing symptoms and treatment now.
Symptoms of hypochlorydria:
*Bloating/burping/belching after meals
*Foul smelling flatulence
*Feeling like food is sitting in your stomach-feel heavy
*Nausea/upset stomach when taking supplements/vitamins
*Undigested food in stool
*Weak, brittle fingernails
*Fatigue after eating
*There are a few lab tests that you can order through your doctor to discover if you have low stomach acid. However, these tests are normally expensive and difficult to order. The best testing is to listen to your body! I know, I know... how many times have you heard that before?! So there is actually a cheap, at home test you can do that takes less than 5 minutes:
Baking Soda Test
*All you need for this test is water and baking soda! This test should be repeated over the course of a few days because there are many variables that can trigger false positives or negatives.
*First thing in the morning before eating or drinking anything, place 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in four ounces of cold water. Drink the mixture and get your timer out! Time how long it takes you to burp. If it takes you longer than five minutes to burp, or you do not burp at all, it is a sign of low stomach acid.
*This test basically triggers a chemical reaction in your stomach- cool, huh?! Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is a basic substance. Your stomach acid, which contains hydrochloric acid (HCL), mixes with the sodium bicarbonate and produces carbon dioxide gas, which causes burping. Science CAN be fun after all!
1) Shot, shot, shot, shot....everrrryyybodyyyy!
Take a shot of apple cider vinegar (ACV) before meals. ACV is a safe, acidic substance that can help improve your stomach's pH levels. Dilute a tablespoon of ACV with a few ounces of water to help the taste.
2) When life gives you lemons... eat them!
Lemons, or lemon water, has shown relief for heartburn. Similar to ACV, lemons are also a safe, acidic substance. However, once lemon is fully digested, it is actually alkalizing to the body. A win, win!
I am a huge advocate for bitters! I will most likely use bitters the rest of my life due to the immediate relief and comfort I get after taking them. Bitters have been used for thousands of years to increase the flow of digestive juices. My favorite brand is this. They are delicious!
4) Spicy ginger
Ginger root is a healing nutrient that has been shown to repair damage in the esophagus, which can provide immediate relief for those suffering with GERD or heartburn. Make a delicious ginger root tea to sip on before and during meals!
5) HCl supplementation
Supplementing with hydrochloric acid can obviously enhance stomach acid production considering this is the substance your gastric acid is made of. It can dramatically improve nutrient absorption and digestion. However, HCL should never be taken by anyone who is using any anti-inflammatory medication. Please consult with a medical provider before taking any supplements.
6) Chew, chew, chew your food and slowwwwww down!
Taking the time to properly chew your food (I always have to remind myself-30 bites per chew!) and slowing down during meals puts less stress on your digestive system, which will dramatically help those suffering with low stomach acid. Eating small, balanced meals throughout the day will also ease your tummy.
7) The one time I would tell you to NOT drink water...
I know, I know... it seems counter-intuitive, but it is important to avoid consuming liquid during meals, especially water. Water literally decreases the concentration of stomach acid when you eat. A few sips of water is fine, but avoid excess consumption during meals. Plus, if you're eating slowly and chewing your food properly, you won't need water!
If you read this blog and thought, "oh my goodness... this describes me," PLEASE do something about it. I ignored my GI symptoms for years and it has taken me a very long time to get my body back to homeostasis. I hope this blog helped you understand the importance of addressing hypochlorydria. Please reach out to me if you have questions about this. It is very important to address this as soon as possible!