Hypochlorhydria, or low stomach acid, is an often overlooked cause of poor health. This condition occurs when the stomach is unable to produce enough hydrochloric acid to meet the body’s digestive needs.
Contrary to popular belief, over 90% of those suffering heartburn, gas, and indigestion have too little stomach acid, rather than too much! This is especially true in those over 40, as stomach acid production is known to decline with age. Though there are many other factors which affect acid production, as well.
The Dangers of Low Stomach Acid
The hydrochloric acid in the stomach plays a vital role in digestion and health. Consequences of hypochlorhydria include:
An Inability to Digest Protein
Protein digestion occurs in the stomach, with gastric acid playing a key role. It stimulates the pancreas and small intestine to produce enzymes and bile in order to facilitate nutrient digestion, and it helps ingested proteins ‘unravel’ into their simplest absorbable form.
Inadequate levels of stomach acid can cause protein malnourishment over time.
An Acid-Base Imbalance
Improper digestion of protein creates toxins in the intestines and creates acidic blood (since animal proteins are naturally acidic). Keeping blood pH slightly alkaline is important for overall health and wellbeing.
Overgrowth of Pathogens and Illness
Pathogenic bacteria and yeast present in some foods are killed by stomach acid, which is important in the prevention of infection and disease.
These microorganisms can upset the delicate balance of bacteria in the gut, which lowers immunity, affects mood and cognition, impairs digestion, contributes to weight gain, and plays a role in chronic fatigue syndrome.
Low stomach acid may also be a risk factor for cancer, as it can encourage the growth of bacteria like Helicobacter pylori, a major cause of stomach cancer.
Certain nutrients are absorbed in the stomach, thanks to the presence of stomach acid. Low levels will naturally lead to less nutrient absorption.
In addition, the body attempts to reach homeostasis (balance) in terms of its acid-alkaline levels by leaching minerals from the bones and other cells, which can potentially lead to osteoporosis and other conditions associated with deficiency.
This condition occurs when the digestive tract becomes more permeable than it should be, allowing food proteins, bacteria, waste products, and undigested food particles to pass through it. Leaky gut is a frequent underlying cause of food allergies and intolerances.
As we known, low stomach acid leads to an imbalance of gut bacteria, an increase in pathogens, undigested foods, and nutrient deficiencies – all of which contribute to leaky gut.
Signs of Low Stomach Acid
To enjoy optimal health, make sure you watch out for these common signs of hypochlorhydria.
1. Difficulty Digesting Meat
Feeling tired or nauseous after eating meat can indicate a problem digesting it, which is likely due to the levels of stomach acid available. Some obvious signs of protein malnourishment include hair loss, and difficulty maintaining muscle tone.
If you struggle with meat, but can consume other foods with relative ease, it’s worth checking your stomach acid levels.
2. Acid Reflux or Heartburn After Meals
As mentioned earlier, too little stomach acid is far more common in cases of heartburn than too much acid! How can this be?
Well, correct levels of gastric acid signal to the LES (the valve which separates the esophagus and the stomach) when to open and close properly, keeping stomach acid – no matter how little – exactly where it should be.
Low stomach acid levels cause the LES to malfunction, and acid rises into the esophagus causing the familiar burning sensation associated with heartburn. Clearly the issue isn’t too much acid, but rather misplaced acid.
3. Bloating or Gas
Gas and bloating after eating – particularly after a meat-heavy meal – is a typical sign of low stomach acid levels.
This can occur because the food sits in the stomach, allowing bacteria in there to consume and ferment it – a byproduct of which is gas.
4. Food Sensitivities
If you have diagnosed or suspected allergies or intolerances to one or more foods (and here’s how you can find out if you do), then low stomach acid may play a role.
Although it is unclear whether food allergies and food intolerances cause low stomach acid, or if low stomach acid is responsible for these sensitivities, the two are most definitely linked. Treating one is often key to remedying the other.
5. Symptoms of Nutrient Deficiency
Strong stomach acid helps us absorb vitamins and minerals like calcium, zinc, iron, folate, and B12.
If you’re suffering any of the symptoms of low levels of these nutrients, it’s not enough to take supplements – you’ll need to address the reason you’re not absorbing them in the first place: low stomach acid.
How to Fix Low Stomach Acid
Now that you’ve seen the far-reaching consequences of low stomach acid, you should evaluate and address your levels – particularly if you’re suffering from any of the signs and symptoms listed above.
1. Confirm Your Stomach Acid Levels Are Low
Firstly, you’ll need to test your acid levels to ensure you are in fact suffering from hypochlorhydria. If you don’t, you could be reducing perfectly healthy acid levels!
Here are three ways to test for low stomach acid.
2. Eat a Healthy Diet
Dramatically improve your digestion and increase stomach acid production by eating a diet filled with whole, unprocessed, natural foods.
Try to eat organic, and avoid genetically modified foods and anything which is processed as these contain high levels of sugar and artificial additives which deplete mineral stores.
3. Add in Fermented Foods
Fermented foods and drinks improve digestion, keep pathogens under control, restore the balance of gut bacteria, aid nutrient absorption, help heal leaky gut, and reduce food allergies.
They’re a crucial part of any healthy diet, and are especially important for those suffering the effects of too little gastric acid.
4. Ditch the Antacids
Each year, Americans spend more than $13 billion on acid-stopping drugs – depleting their low acid levels even further. This is why testing your stomach acid levels is so important!
If you have low stomach acid – even if you suffer from heartburn or acid reflux – it’s important to stop taking over-the-counter antacids and discuss stopping prescription acid-blockers with your doctor.
5. Chew Food Thoroughly
Few people thoroughly chew their food. Proper mastication is an important step when eating because digestion begins in the mouth. This makes the body’s job of breaking down swallowed food that little bit easier.
Taking the time to chew properly will also slow down the rate at which you eat, and will likely see you eat smaller portions as your brain has time to receive signals of satiety. This too will help stomach acid do its job, as larger meals require larger volumes of gastric juices.
6. Reduce Stress
Eating when stressed out (i.e. when in fight-or-flight mode) means that the body diverts its energy away from certain tasks like digestion. It shuts down the production of both crucial enzymes and stomach acid.
As a result, food stays in the stomach longer which leads to bloating and digestive distress. Long term, it leads to the symptoms listed above.
Before mealtimes, put your worries aside and focus on the food. Some deep breathing exercises can also help.
7. Take Digestive Enzymes or Apple Cider Vinegar
If you’re not producing enough stomach acid, you’re not signaling to the pancreas that you require digestive enzymes.
Thankfully, you can supplement with enzymes until your gastric juices are back in working order. Be sure to choose an enzyme product containing proteases, lipases, and amylases which break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates respectively.
Apple cider vinegar or herbal bitters, which you can get at any health store, are also effective digestive enzymes if taken before meals.
8. Use Hydrochloric Acid (HCL) Supplements
Temporarily taking HCL supplements with pepsin (which mimic the acid found in the stomach) can be a useful step in correcting hypochlorhydria. This can also help heal leaky gut, eliminate food allergies, and reduce acid reflux.
Please note that it is recommended to only take this supplement whilst under the care of a licensed physician.
9. Take a Multivitamin and Multi-mineral
Because low stomach acid leads to nutrient malabsorption, once you take other steps to address these low levels, you should begin supplementing with a high-quality, whole food multivitamin and multi-mineral.
Choose one that is rich in zinc, as this important mineral is required to produce stomach acid (and stomach acid is necessary to digest some of the richest sources of zinc!).
10. Manuka Honey
This healing honey, which hails from New Zealand, has been shown in tests to possess antibacterial activity against H. pylori and other pathogens. Keeping these under control whilst addressing low stomach acid, and other digestive disorders, is important to ensure a speedy recovery and prevent other health conditions from developing.
Just make sure you’re getting what you pay for when it comes to Manuka! It’s believed that only 2,000 to 3,000 tons of genuine Manuka honey is made every year in New Zealand, yet three times that much is sold under the label ‘Manuka’ around the world.
Read more about the wonders of Manuka honey in this article.
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