Low stomach acid and how it can affect digestion (and more)
IBS, infertility, autoimmune disease, adrenal fatigue… everyone struggles with something. Do you ever feel discouraged with trying to heal your body? I do.
I’ve been dealing with chronic digestive issues, otherwise known as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), for over 8 years. That doesn’t count the years of intermittent problems I had growing up. The topic of digestive issues is one that is difficult for me to admit, especially in a public place like the internet. Having said that, I believe that God always works for good, so despite my discomfort, I hope that sharing this will help others somehow.
Fortunately I don’t let discouragement stop me from persevering. My education as a Registered Dietitian and Holistic Health Coach has trained me to research and never stop learning. During my latest investigation on IBS I came to a realization that I was focusing too much on healing the “gut” (the intestines) with probiotics, digestive enzymes and eating the proper foods (to avoid nutrient deficiencies and food intolerances); but not enough on where digestion begins – in the stomach.
Probiotics and digestive enzymes are beneficial for many reasons, but if there is a lack of stomach acid (hydrochloric acid or HCL), nutrients from food or supplements will not be digested or absorbed properly.
How do you know if you have low HCL?
Symptoms of low stomach acid:
- Constipation and/or diarrhea
- Fullness for hours after meals
- Nausea after eating or taking supplements
- Bloating, excess gas and/or belching
- Fatigue and sleepiness after eating
- Meat is hard to digest, especially beef or pork
- Food intolerances*
- Nutrient deficiencies
Digestion and low stomach acid
To read more on the process of digestion, how it works and what can go wrong, I love this detailed article. As it mentions in the article, it is a widespread belief that heartburn is a result of too much stomach acid, but the opposite is actually true. It’s not common to have too much acid unless you have a rare disorder called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome. Taking antacids or PPIs (Proton Pump Inhibitors) for heartburn can actually exacerbate the problem!
One of the most common ways to increase HCl is to supplement with Betaine Hydrochloride (HCl) with pepsin. There is a “test” or an experimental phase to slowly increase the dose of HCl to see how much your body needs and can tolerate. Ideally, your body will start making enough HCl on its own and the supplements can be tapered off. (you can find this supplement on Amazon)
*Please note: do not supplement with Betaine HCl if you are taking any type of anti-inflammatory drugs including corticosteroids, aspirin, ibuprofen or other NSAIDs. These drugs can thin the stomach lining and supplementing with HCl can cause stomach bleeding or ulcers. It is recommended to work with a professional when supplementing with Betaine HCl.
Other options that can help enhance HCl production include drinking diluted lemon juice, diluted apple cider vinegar, or taking bitters before meals. Bone broth, fermented vegetables and unrefined sea salt can also be beneficial. Also, make sure you are chewing your food properly and not drinking too much liquid with meals since this dilutes the stomach acid.
Why is stomach acid so important?
- It kills bacteria and other pathogens to prevent them from entering the intestine where infection can occur
- Allows proper absorption of nutrients including Vitamin B12, zinc, calcium, magnesium and iron
- Breaks down protein into essential amino acids
- Is essential to maintain proper gut flora
On the quest for healing, please remember digestion works from “north to south”, starting at the stomach and working down. With any ailment, it’s important to find out the root cause of the issue.
A lack of stomach acid can be caused by a number of things including aging, stress, adrenal fatigue, certain medications, and possibly a H. pylori infection. Working with a natural health professional can help you get to the root of the issue, so please work with someone while you try to increase your stomach acid production.
Do you take Betaine or digestive enzymes? How has it helped you? Please feel free to share your journey to healing!
*Pali-Scholl, I., Herzog, R., et al. Antacids and Dietary Supplements with an Influence on the Gastric pH Increase the Risk for Food Sensitization. Clinical and Experimental Allergy. July 2010. 40(7), 1091-1098.