Gut Health: 10 Ways To Heal Low Stomach Acid
One of the first steps to healing Candida overgrowth, SIBO, parasites (or any other health compilation really) is making sure you are producing proper amounts of stomach acid.
I know what you may be thinking…
When I say the words ‘stomach acid’ the first thing that usually comes to people’s minds are ‘evil’ stomach acid health problems like acid reflux or heartburn. In these cases acid blocking or neutralizing medication are often prescribed, but these ‘quick fixes’ are not a long term solution, they only make the problem worse down the line.
American’s don’t have a stomach acid problem in the sense that we are producing too much acid and that it needs to be down regulated, it’s that we are producing TOO LITTLE stomach acid.
According to Dr. Jonathan Wright MD, who has examined thousands of his patients using Heidelberg gastric telemetry,
An Estimated 90% of Americans Produce Too Little Stomach Acid.
Low stomach acid, also called Hypochlorhydria, is an epidemic that is affecting up to half of our population. It is commonly overlooked and rarely discussed when addressing health issues. Low stomach acid production is linked to numerous (if not all) health complications.
Common Symptoms of Low Stomach Acid
- Digestive distress: indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, gas, belching, heaviness after meals, undigested bits of food in stool/yellow stool, rectal itching
- Digestive disorders: IBS, IBD, Crohn’s, celiacs, Gastritis, stomach and duodenum ulcers , leaky gut
- Autoimmune conditions and food allergies
- Gut dysbiosis: parasite infections, SIBO, yeast overgrowth and Candida fungus, overgrowth of H.pylori in the stomach
- Mineral, vitamin, amino acid, fat soluble vitamin deficiencies: calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, boron, iron, zinc, B12, vitamins A, D, E, K, and Omega’s
- Heavy metal retention and toxicity.
- Neurological disease and mood disregulation
- Brittle bones (osteoporosis), brittle nails, and hair loss
- Adrenal exhaustion and chronic fatigue
- Dry skin and acne
- Bad breath and body odor
If you aren’t breaking down your food, you aren’t assimilating nutrients properly, at best you’re wasting your money on grocery bills – Nora Gedgaudas, Primal Body Primal Mind
Imagine hundreds of dominos lined up in an intricate design, weaving in and out, up and down. You’ve spent weeks putting it together and now it’s time push over that first domino to begin the majestic dance of falling dominos.
Your stomach acid is that first domino of your digestive system. Everything is in perfect place ready to go, but without that first domino nothing can happen, the entire conveyor belt of digestion becomes totally skewed.
You can be eating mouthfuls of lavish, vitamin rich, organic foods, but without proper stomach acid production your food isn’t feeding you, only feeding nutrient deficiencies. The food will move through your digestive tract rancid, fermenting where it shouldn’t, causing bloating, gas, acid reflux, inflammation and irritation, and creating toxic compounds that wreck havoc on all your organs.
The putrid sludge moves through your digestive system leading to microvilli damage, which then further exasperates nutrient deficiencies, and leaky gut; poorly digested food enters your bloodstream and causes chaotic immune system response, autoimmune disorders and allergies.
Proteins like casein and gluten get turned into opiate-like substances (casomorphin and gliadomorphin) which make their way to the brain to cause abnormal brain activity and interrupted development. These compounds exasperate conditions such as autism, depression, and schizophrenia.
There is a saying in traditional Ayurvedic medicine…
“Take care of your agni and your agni will take care of you.” ‘Angi’ is your digestive fire.
Hippocrates the father of modern day medicine also taught, “All disease begins in the gut.”
So naturally all health begins here too. A strong digestive system is the foundation of your wellness and healthy stomach acid production is #1.
6 Key Functions of Stomach Acid
1. Sterilizing food and preventing food borne disease by killing pathogenic bacteria .
2. Breaking down proteins into amino acids for proper absorption.
3. Stimulating the release of 2 important digestive hormones, secretin and cholecystokinin, that tell your pancreas and small intestines to produce digestive enzymes, protective mucus, and a bicarbonate solution.
4. Activating the release of bile to begin the break down of fats.
5. Activating intrinsic factor: this is a glycoprotein made in the stomach that is needed for vitamin B12 absorption.
6. Sphincter control: triggering the closing of the esophageal sphincter (just above the stomach) to protect the delicate tissue of the esophagus from the harsh acids in the stomach, and opening the pyloric sphincter to move food into the small intestines.
Causes of Low Stomach Acid
- The overuse of antibiotics : which leads to the next cause of low stomach acid..
- Gut Dysbiosis: Candida overgrowth, SIBO, parasites, overgrowth of H.pylori in the stomach, further stunt stomach acid secretion
- Use of proton pump inhibitors: Stomach acid blocking medications prevent the production of hydrochloric acid, HCL (stomach acid).
- Over use of NSAIDs: Tylenol, ibuprofen, aspirin, etc, these medications damage the stomach lining and stunt the stomach cells to produce HCl.
- Stress!! (Can’t stress this enough!)
- Nutrient deficiencies: specifically B vitamins, zinc, and Vitamin C as these are some of the key nutrients involved in stomach acid production.
- Poor diet: a high carbohydrate diet, filled with processed foods and devoid in protein stunts HCl production
- Low functioning thyroid
- Age: it’s inevitable, sadly we make less stomach acid as we get older
- Eating too quickly, eating too much in one sitting , and eating ‘on the go’.
- Food sensitivities to gluten, corn, soy, pasteurized dairy, peanuts. Food sensitivities trigger theimmune system which puts us in a state of fight or flight stunting the digestive process
People with abnormal gut flora, almost without exception, have low stomach acid production Toxins produced by overgrowth of Candida species, Clostridia, and other pathogens have strong ability to reduce secretion of stomach acid. – Dr. Natasha Campbell, The GAPS Diet
Stomach Acid Is Your First Line Of Defence
Your stomach is extreme acidic not just to stimulate healthy digestion, but to also serve as your first line of defence against invading pathogens trying to hitch a ride into your intestines on the food you eat. Your stomach acid is meant to kill any parasites attempting to sneak in.
In a healthy digestive tract the stomach is the least populated organ, very little bacteria should be living in here. However, if you’re not producing enough stomach acid, (for whatever reason mentioned above, be it the overuse of antibiotics, poor diet, or stress) you become extremely vulnerable to parasites, food born illnesses, and SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).
The under acidic environment allows opportunistic bacteria like Helicobacter pylori, Campylobacterpylori, Enterobacteria, Candida yeast, Salmonella, E.coli., and Streptococci to proliferate and dominate the stomach and gut lining. These pathogenic organisms play a role in causing stomach cancer, ulcers, and gastritis.
Many of these bad bacteria can also further stunt the production of your stomach acid by suppressing the function of the cells in the stomach that are involved in HCl production.
Normally the carbohydrates and sugars you eat would be digested and fermented in the intestines, but with these bacteria living in your stomach, they begin to prematurely ferment your food in the stomach. This causes unpleasant sensations such as gas, belching, burping, bloating, etc.
Not only that, but as these bacteria begin to breakdown the food in your stomach they create toxic byproducts like alcohol and acetaldehyde that rapidly get absorbed into your bloodstream through the stomach walls. This can cause experiences of brain fog, fatigue, and nausea.
To get a better understanding (and gain a deeper appreciation) of the important role your stomach acid plays, lets journey through your digestive tube tracing the footsteps of your food and learning some tips along the way for stronger digestion and better health.
Stage 1: Digestive ‘Foreplay’
Digestion actually begins in your brain. You must switch into your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) to stimulate healthy digestion. Stress paralyzes normal digestive function and inhibits the secretion of your hydrochloric acid and your other digestive juices.
Next time you are about to enjoy a meal, stop for a moment and really see and appreciate the food on your plate. You can try to imagine it in your head right now. (This is a bit like foreplay for your digestion. )
Breathe in the pleasant aromas of your favourite dish, see the vibrant colors, observe the texture and presentation… Notice how your mouth begins to water just thinking about? Now you are ready to start eating.
Most of us, however, don’t take the time to do this. We absentmindedly gobble down our food in a few short bites. Poorly half-chewed food causes the need for more stomach acid, which begins to put the first hindrance on your digestive system.
Stage 2: Your Agni (Your Digestive Fire)
Once food arrives in the stomach ideally ample amounts of hydrochloric acid (HCl) gets secreted which triggers the release of pepsin, a digestive enzyme used to breakdown complex protein. Poor production of hydrochloric acid results in insufficient amounts of pepsin and the maldigestion of proteins.
Proteins get broken down into amino acids and a lack of proper stomach acid results in an amino acid deficiency. This can become dangerous because amino acids are needed for more than 50,000 functions in the body!
The maintenance of healthy states of mind and joyful mood relies on healthy neurotransmitter production which in themselves rely on a proper balance of amino acids! (See how the domino’s are being to fall…?)
To add to this domino effect of casualties, from lack of proper stomach acid secretion creates protein deficiency which raises cortisol and blood sugar levels. This puts a huge strain on your adrenals and can lead to adrenal exhaustion and fatigue if let gone on long enough.
Stomach acid also play a crucial role in helping to properly break down at least 14 vital minerals including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, boron, iron, zinc, B12, and folic acid.
B12 is absolutely vital for healthy brain function and impaired digestion inhibits the absorption of this very crucial nutrient. B12 can lead to severe mood disorders, dementia, and even irreversible brain damage.
Zinc is one of the major building blocks in making stomach acid and low stomach acid causes zinc deficiencies. So now poor stomach acid production is causing mineral and nutrient deficiencies and then these deficiencies are further fuelling the deficiency of stomach acid production. (More domino’s!)
Now you’re going around in circles, chasing your own tail.
Now these mineral deficiencies can lead to heavy metal toxicity. Toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, and aluminum have similar structures to the benevolent minerals and will compete for receptor sites in the body to wreak havoc on organs and systems. Cadmium and mercury will fill in for zinc, aluminum will fill receptor cites in the brain which has been link to the development of Alzheimers.
Furthermore the lack of minerals in the body creates acidic blood. The body tries to remedy this by hunting for minerals in the tissues of your body. It will then take minerals from muscles and bones to alkalize your blood, leading to MORE mineral deficiencies, brittle bones (osteoporosis), muscle weakness, and impaired immunity. Again the vicious cycle continues. ..
“One of the best preventatives of heavy metals toxicity is healthy mineral sufficiency!” - Nora Gedgaudus
Stage 3: Open Sesame
Normally the stomach is extremely acidic, with the pH ranging from 0.8 – 3.0. This level of acidity is the magic word, “open sesame” that triggers the pyloric valve to empty the stomach contents into the duodenum for the next stage of digestion.
However, with low stomach acid, the gate remains locked. Usually the fermentation of food happens in the colon during the last stages of digestion, but now as it’s confined in the stomach (sometimes for hours) it begins to prematurely ferment causing digestive discomforts like belching, gas, bloating, acid reflux, and heart burn.
Sooner or later the putrid chyme will make it’s way through the digestive system; rotting in the intestines and polluting the entire body causing inflammation and leaky gut, exasperating the immune system and encouraging autoimmune reactions and food allergies.
Stage 4: The Digestive Cocktail
Once food arrives in the small intestine, again, stomach acid plays a crucial role here. It is the head honcho, a major regulator of how your pancreas and liver responds to food.
The contents coming from the stomach needs to be at a pH of 2 or lower to activate the secretion of two super important hormones, secretin and cholecystokinin. These 2 hormones are made in the duodenum wall and trigger the function of your key digestive organs.
Secretin gives your stomach the command to stomach making acid and stimulates your liver to make bile. It gives your intestines the, ‘Heads up! Food is coming.” The intestines then begins to prepare itself by secreting mucus to protect the intestinal walls from the acidic content of the food coming from the stomach.
Most importantly secretin stimulates your gallbladder to release a bicarbonate solution that serves to neutralize the stomach acid and prepares your food for the arrival the pancreatic digestive enzymes.
Cholecystokinin serves as a second reminder to your stomach to stop making stomach acid and then tells the pancreas to make digestive enzymes. Without this hormonal communication the pancreas will idly sit there, twiddling it’s thumbs, letting food turn rancid in the intestines.
Cholecystokinin, in a sense, ‘opens the flood gates’ of digestive juices inviting the next process of your digestion; stimulating your gallbladder to release bile to begin the digest of fats and commands the pancreas to let loose and release its digestive enzymes.
Without proper amounts of stomach acid these 2 super important digestive hormones, secretin and cholecystokinin, don’t get released and digestion becomes paralyzed.
No stomach acid = no pancreatic enzymes and no bile.
This leads to indigestion, toxicity and malnutrition. The perfect storm encouraging disease in the body.
I hope by now you’re growing a love affair with your stomach acid.. .
Stage 5: Taking It All In
With proper amounts of stomach acid a healthy digestive cocktail is delivered into the small intestines to trigger the next stage of digestion: nutrient absorption.
Thanks to the bicarbonate solution that gets released by the pancreas the duodenum and small intestine have a more alkaline pH than the stomach. This is needed for pancreatic enzymes to function properly and disassemble complex macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) and turn them into small building blocks of fatty acids, amino acids, monosaccharides, and nucleotides for your small intestine to easily absorb.
Densely folded fingerlike protrusions (resembling a shag rug) called villi cover the surface of small intestines to increase it’s surface area to maximize on the opportunity for nutrient absorption. These villi are themselves covered in more finger-like protrusions called microvilli which are responsible for pulling in nutrients.
Thousands of gut lining cells make up this shag rug surface of villi. They are held together by tight junctions. Leaky gut is when these tight junctions lose there integrity; the gut lining loses its tight structure letting in undigested food particles, toxins, and parasites straight into your blood stream.
This can cause a number of health problems from food allergies to full blow autoimmune and neurological conditions.
Poorly digested food, toxins, and franken-foods like modern day strains of wheat (gluten) are know to cause leaky gut and damage the villi wearing them down (blunting or causing atrophy) to the point where they aren’t able to properly pull in nutrients to nourish the body. This can lead to multiple deficiencies and is common in many health complications such as Crohn’s, lymphoma, IBS, SIBO, and Celiac disease.
Above is an image of villi in 3 stages. The first image is healthy villi, notice the fingerlike protrusions ready and able to pull in nutrients. The second is moderate damage, and the last is total villi atrophy. The last stage is an example of full blown celiac disease and severe malnutrition in the body. The intestines aren’t able to nourish the body properly.
Image sourced from: “Celiac disease: diagnostic criteria in progress”
Stage 6: Microbial Feast
Via peristalsis, a muscular snake-like wave, food travels through the digestive tract, once it arrives in into the large intestine about 90% of the nutrients have been extracted.
Most of the food in here is waste left over from the digestive process. However with improper stomach acid production, much of your food would be sitting in here undigested, going to waste as it’s being prepared to be evacuated from the body and flushed down the toilet.
The majority of your gut bacteria live here in your large intestine, about 100 trillion of them. They feed off on what’s left, mostly the indigestible fibres and excess sugars in your diet. Your colon also, in a sense, serves as a microbial toilet. Your gut bacteria feast on your left overs and their metabolic byproducts (poop) are excreted into your colon.
Your beneficial bacteria will create waste that actually serves to nourish your body, making nutrient such as butyrate, SCFAs (short chain fatty acids), Vitamin D, K, and even B12.
The bad bacteria on the other hand create toxic waste and when left overfed these bad bacteria, along with Candida yeast, proliferation in large numbers and can create massive amounts of toxicity in your body.
Ensuring you have healthy stomach acid production ensures everything runs smoothly, from start to finish.
10 Tips For Healing Low Stomach Acid
1. Practice digestive ‘foreplay’. Take a moment to appreciate and give thanks for your meal then take 5 deep belly breaths to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest).
2. Chew your food! Aim for 10-20 chews per bite. Take your time.
3. Reduce fluid consumption with meals.
3. Try food combining. This is a method of eating that avoids combining proteins with starches and sugars in 1 meal. Starchy foods and sugars inhibit the secretion of stomach acid which is needed to properly digest proteins.
4. Avoid over eating. You can do this by following #1 and #2.
5. Avoid denature proteins like heavy cooked meats, gluten, pasteurized milk, and heavily processed soy protein. Avoid unfermented soy altogether because soy contains enzyme inhibitors that over time ruin your ability to digest and absorb protein.
6. Reduce unnecessary medication use, alcohol and coffee consumption: avoid antibiotics, NSAIDs, and acid blocking medication whenever possible.
7. Practice proper stress management and don’t eat when you’re anxious. Chronic stress paralyzes the flow of your digestives juices.
8. Drink 1 tbps of apple cider vinegar in 1/4 cup water, or lemon juice in water, 10 mins before meals to balance the pH of the stomach and encourage healthy stomach acid secretion.
9. Eat raw fermented veggies with meals such as sauerkraut or kimchee with meals. The bacteria and enzymes help with the digestive process.
10. Drink bone broth or home made meat stock .
#1 Supplement For Healing Stomach Acid
If you have leaky gut and/or are working to heal Candida, this is one of the most important supplements you can take.
Betaine Hydrochloric Acid
Start with 1 capsule before meals that contain protein. If you don’t feel a warm sensation in your stomach, take 2 with your next meal. Do this until you feel warm a sensation, once achieved back off by 1 capsule. This is your dose. Some people need to take only one capsule, but don’t be surprised if you have to take 7 or 8.
There is an alternative way of finding our HCl dose and that is taking the capsule mid protein rich meal and then seeing how you feel after your meal. If you don’t get that warm sensation, you’ll need to up your dose. If you feel a burning hot sensation, this means you’ve taken too much and back off. Try both ways and see where you fit.
Overtime as you supplement with Betaine HCl, you’ll heal your digestive system and fix nutrient deficiencies. This will all you to produce ample amounts of your own stomach acid and you’ll notice you’ll be able to reduce the amount of supplementation. The goal is to slowly wean yourself off to not have to rely on supplementation anymore. (And this will happen!)
“I believe that GAPS patients need supplementation with stomach acid. The most physiological preparation available on the market is Betaine HCl with added Pepsin. One capsule usually provides 200-300 mg of Betaine HCl and 100mg of Pepsin” – Dr.Natasha Campbell, GAPS Diet
If you are already suffering from acid reflux, have an inflamed esophagus, ulcers, or gastritis, avoid HCL supplements. Instead focus on soothing the inflammation in the esophagus and stomach by taking DGL liquorice, fresh raw cabbage juice, and l-glutamine.
The Baking Soda Stomach Acid Test
I learned this trick to check if you have enough stomach acid from Dr. Jockers
A unique chemical reaction happens in your stomach when you drink baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). The (OH-) ions of the baking soda mixes with and reacts to the hydrogen (H+) ions within your stomach acid (HCL). This results in the production of carbon dioxide gas which will make you burp.
This test isn’t flawless so Dr. Jockers recommends you perform this test 3 consecutive mornings in order to find an overall average.
“With this method, you are looking for a pattern of results rather than a one-time “yes” or “no.” Also, to improve the accuracy it is important to do the test first thing in the morning before eating or drinking anything else. Any belching after 3 minutes is an indication of low stomach acid production.”
– Dr. Jockers
Betaine HCL Vs. Digestive Enzymes
If you are on a tight budget and need to choose one, Dr. Natasha Campbell from the GAPS diet recommends Betaine HCL over digestive enzymes. This is because if you are only supplementing with digestive enzymes you will miss out on all the needed chain reactions that stomach acid triggers in the conveyor belt of digestive function which we just discussed in great detail above; triggering the secretion of mucus, bicarbonate solution, bile, secretin, cholecystokinin, etc.
Digestive enzymes help you better breakdown your food and prepare it for absorption, but this is what a pancreas would produce with healthy stomach acid anyhow.
Enzyme supplements still offer much benefit and if you’d like to try how they work, go for it. They are great to have on hand when you can’t escape from eating a large meal (like Christmas dinner) or when you have to ‘cheat’ with your dietary protocol and eat something you normally wouldn’t.
However, remember that digestive enzymes do little for helping heal low stomach acid, and cannot be taken in place of Betaine HCl, as they function completely differently from one another in the body.
Don’t Have A Gall Bladder Or Have Gall Bladder Issues?
Healthy bile production is influenced by gastric pH signalling (your stomach acid) so naturally poor stomach acid production can lead to stagnant bile flow. Improper bile flow prevents the emulsification and breakdown of fats leading to fat soluble vitamin deficiencies which includes essential vitamins A,D, E, and K, as well as Omega fatty acids.
One major red flag that your bile flow has been stunted is pale yellow stools. This is the result of poorly digested leftover fats that have not been absorbed by the body.
Make it a habit to look in the bowl before flushing, your stool can give you a lot of clues to how well your digestive system is functioning. Are you see large undigested bits of food in your stool? This is a clear sign that you need to heal your stomach acid.
If you had your gall bladder removed supplement with bile salts with fatty meals to ensure you are properly digesting and absorbing fats so you do not develop deficiencies in fat soluble vitamins: A, D, E, K.
Low-Fat Diets Encourage Sluggish Gall Bladder Function & Gallstones
Normally bile is actually quite liquid-like, mainly composed of cholesterol and bile salts, certain minerals and nutrients. A low fat diet that doesn’t stimulate bile flow and causes the bile to build up and thicken from disuse. If gone on long enough this creates a painful sluggish gallbladder, liver disfunction, and can cause the formation of gallstones.
One of the best ways to prevent gall stones from forming is to regularly stimulate bile production with proper secretions of stomach acid and a diet plentiful of healthy fats.
Take good care of your digestive tract, because after all..
“The road to good health is paved with good intestines” – Sherry A. Rogers M.D.
Aga Postawska, HHC