People often think they have too much acid when in fact they have too little. The symptoms are the same – heartburn, belching, reflux – the list is long. In order to understand how all this works, let’s go through some basics.
7 Major Functions of Stomach Acid
- Sterilizes the Food: Whenever we consume food, bacteria and other microorganisms come in with the food (no matter whether it is raw, cooked or pasteurized). Stomach acid helps to neutralize the invaders we don’t want in our system
- Protein Digestion: Stomach acid is necessary to begin the process of breaking down protein. Have you ever marinated meat in vinegar? Vinegar is not nearly as acidic as what your stomach acid should be, yet, over time it degrades the meat. This is what your stomach acid should be doing in a much quicker fashion. It ‘loosens’ the protein molecules so that pepsin can get at them to digest them.
- Activating Pepsin: Pepsin is a proteolytic enzyme that actually digests or breaks into smaller pieces the proteins in your food. Stomach acid activates pepsin from its inactive form called pepsinogen.
- Activating Intrinsic Factor: Stomach acid helps to activate intrinsic factor which is a glycoprotein produced in the stomach necessary for vitamin B12 absorption which takes place further down in the gut.
- Stimulating the Delivery of Bile and Enzymes: When the food mixed with stomach acid enters the duodenum the duodenum sends a signal to the liver and gall bladder to release bile and the pancreas is likewise stimulated to release digestive enzymes.
- Closing the Esophageal Sphincter: Stomach acid is also a vital trigger for the contraction of the esophageal sphincter (just above the stomach) to protect the soft, delicate tissue of the esophagus from the harsh acids in the stomach.
- Opening the Pyloric Sphincter: Stomach acid helps to active the pyloric sphincter which allows food to move from the stomach to the small intestine.
Why LOW Stomach Acid is a Problem
- When the body is unable to produce enough stomach acid, it is unable to digest protein molecules and absorb key minerals like zinc. These partially digested protein molecules get into the small intestine and create significant stress on the pancreas to produce adequate enzymes to digest the protein effectively.
- If this occurs repeatedly over time, it will wear down your pancreatic enzyme output capability and cause stress and irritation to the intestinal lining. Additionally, if the protein molecules are not efficiently digested we are unable to absorb enough amino acids which are necessary for numerous crucial functions of the body. This can lead to amino acid deficiencies, poor healing and a breakdown of various important bodily functions.
- The large protein molecules and incomplete digestion irritates the gut lining, leading to leaky gut syndrome. Poor digestion also creates an environment suitable for the development of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), Candida overgrowth and parasitic infections.
- When we digest our food poorly it leads to increased inflammatory activity which depletes key minerals and antioxidants throughout the body. This mineral depletion leads to an inability to form stomach acid and the vicious cycle of poor digestion and chronic inflammation continues.
Signs that You Could Have Low Stomach Acid:
The condition of low HCL causes poor digestive motility and sphincter activity. This allows food contents to sit in the stomach and be metabolized by bacteria that are able to survive due to lack of stomach acid. The result of this bacterial fermentation is gas which can cause bloating, cramping, belching, etc. Here then are the most common signs and symptoms that you have low stomach acid production.
- Gas and Belching: With low HCL, this usually comes on shortly after a meal, within 60 minutes.
- Acid Reflux: This is most commonly caused by low acid (not too much acid)
- Bloating and Cramping: The gas production from the bacterial fermentation in the stomach produces this. Again, it typically comes on within an hour of eating.
- Chronic Bad Breath: This is due to the toxic metabolites produced through bacterial fermentation in the stomach.
- Bad Body Odour: Poor stomach acid production leads to an overall microbial overgrowth throughout the body. More microbes produce more smelly toxins.
- Undigested Food in Stools: This is obvious, you are not able to completely metabolize the food you are consuming.
- Aversion to Meat: Many people with low stomach acid desire to avoid meat and have digestive problems (as described above) when they eat it. Especially red meat which is usually tougher and depends upon more HCL than whiter meats for digestion.
- Tired After Meals: If the digestive process has to work twice as hard, it will cost us a lot of energy, leaving us tired.
- Feeling Full But Still Hungry: You are full because food isn’t leaving your stomach, but you are hungry because you are not absorbing nutrients effectively.
- Chronic Anemia: You aren’t having excessive bleeding, you are consuming enough iron in your diet (or even in supplements), yet you still have a non-responsive anemia because you are not absorbing enough B12 owing to the lack of intrinsic factor which is caused by low acidity in the stomach.
- Weak Fingernails: If your fingernails break, chip or peel easily it is a classic sign of nutrient deficiencies, especially protein, minerals and B12.
- Frequent Nausea: Because your stomach gets full quickly, it can often trigger a nausea reflex.
Additionally, you may be more prone to food poisoning because the less stomach acid you are producing, the less able you will be to ‘sterilize’ the food in the stomach. Have you ever wondered why 2 people can eat the same dish, one gets sick and the other doesn’t. It may have had to do with stomach acid production.
The Betaine HCL Challenge Test:
This is a very reliable test you can perform if you have the symptoms above – you just need a bottle of Betaine HCL (I like the one by Solgar) which you will probably need if to help you restore HCL levels if they truly are low.
To Perform the Test do the Following:
- Get a bottle of Betaine HCL with pepsin
- Eat a high protein meal of at least 160g of meat (you can have veggies too) – this may be a problem in your case if you don’t eat meat – but I’m just giving you the way the test is done
- In the middle of the meal (never in the beginning) take 1 Betaine HCL pill with a little water
- Finish the meal and observe what you notice. Write this down in your journal.
- You Don’t Notice Anything: If you do not notice any difference then it is most likely you have low stomach acid levels.
- You Notice Indigestion: If you notice a burning, hotness or heaviness in your chest than these are signs you have adequate stomach acid levels and there is something else we need to focus on, but it’s not stomach acid.
It is best to do this test 2-3 times in order to make sure you aren’t getting a false positive. There are 3 main reasons for someone getting a possible false positive.
- Didn’t Consume Enough Protein: If it is a relatively low protein meal, you won’t need much HCL and therefore the supplement can cause too much of an increase.
- Taking the Tablet before the Meal: This will almost always cause indigestion as your body isn’t ready for the supplement. The stomach would normally produce acid only after some food is eaten.
- Esophageal Sphincter Dysfunction: For some individuals, they may have a hiatal hernia or poor contractile activity of the esophogeal sphincter that can cause an increase in indigestion-like symptoms. It is always good to get a medical exam to rule these things out before doing the test if possible.
Ways to Improve Your Stomach Acid:
These are tips to help improve your digestion if you have lower stomach acid levels. By following these strategies, you reduce stress on your digestive system and absorb nutrients more effectively. This will help your body to have the resources it needs to produce adequate stomach acid in the future.
- Use Ginger: Ginger is one of the best ways to improve digestive juices. Ginger is part of a group of herbs called carminatives along with peppermint, star anise, cardamom, coriander, etc. I recommend drinking 2-3 cups of ginger tea each day, you can put ginger essential oil in water (2-3 drops in water), juice 3cm of fresh ginger root in a green juice each day and use ground ginger on your foods. You can also consume fermented ginger which is common in Asian dishes such as kimchi.
- Super-Hydrate Outside of Meal Times: I am a HUGE advocate of optimal hydration and it is especially important if you have low stomach acid. Good hydration will help activate bowel motility and push contents through the digestive system which will reduce microbial fermentation and toxicity in the body.
- Drink Very Little With Meat-Containing Meals: Anytime you are going to have meat or any sort of heavier food (not a smoothie or a veggie salad), you should not drink water for at least 30 minutes before the meal other than perhaps ½ a glass for taking a supplement. This will reduce any potential dilution of the gastric juices and allow for better digestion.
- Avoid Water After a Meal: To allow for optimal digestion, I recommend abstaining from water or liquids until at least 30 minutes after a meal. This allows for proper stomach acid activity, sterilization, protein metabolism, etc.
- Use Lemon and Apple Cider Vinegar: Squeezing fresh lemon or using lemon juice or apple cider vinegar (ACV) on your meat and veggies helps to tenderize the food. This allows for better digestion and nutrient absorption. You can either marinate foods in a lemon or ACV base or just add them as a dressing before you consume them.
- Eat Protein Foods at the Beginning of the Meal: The stomach will begin churning out its stomach acid when you begin eating, especially when you are consuming protein. It is very common for people to eat a salad before their protein dish, but this doesn’t work well for your stomach acid production. It is a much better idea to eat your protein WITH the salad or veggies.
- Use Fermented Veggies: Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, pickled ginger, etc. all contain organic acids, enzymes and probiotics which help to improve digestive juice secretions. I recommend using one of these with all of your heavier meals and especially any meal with protein.
- Use Fermented Drinks: Fermented drinks such as ACV, coconut water kefir and lemon water (not fermented) contain organic acids that have an anti-microbial effect. These help to reduce the bacterial load, especially the bacteria in the stomach such as Helicobacter pylori. Keeping H Pylori levels down is important for the body to be able to produce enough stomach acid.
- Eat Your Largest Meal When You Are Most Relaxed: In order to produce adequate stomach acid, your body needs to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. If you are busy and on the go, you will be in fight-or-flight sympathetic mode. If you struggle with low stomach acid, this is not going to allow you to produce anywhere near enough.
- Take a zinc supplement because a zinc deficiency is one of the reasons for low acid production. Since you need acid to absorb zinc a lack of zinc will cause a vicious cycle of low acidity leading to poor zinc absorption leading to even lower acid production.
Do I Need to Take Betaine HCL For Life?
This is the most common question I get after people see the remarkable results they get from optimizing their stomach acid and using the Betaine HCL tablets. Because stomach acid is something our body naturally should produce, this is a very valid question and concern.
The answer is… maybe. Individuals who are younger and healthier can quickly regain near optimal HCL production and maintain that throughout life with the right eating plan. Older individuals or those who have suffered with chronic health problems for a longer time may need extra stomach acid support for life. Either way, your life will be much better by taking the HCL supplements you need so you can optimize your digestion than avoiding them or using them marginally. Fortunately, they are one of the most inexpensive supplements you can find on the market.
If you want an overall good digestive enzyme, and not Betaine, why not start with Prepzymes – you’ll find it in my online store and this is a great adjunct to meals at any age. You can use up to 6 at a time on a full or empty stomach for different applications. But an enzyme supplement can have a remarkable effect on digestion and how you feel. Prepzymes are fine to take as they contain no HCL, but they do have plenty of fat, carb and protein-digesting enzymes in there and make you feel really good after a meal.