The Truth About Stomach Acid
By Sarah Axtell, ND • September 1, 2014
You may have been told by your doctor that you have too much stomach acid and that you need to take an antacid. Overproduction of stomach acid is far less common than low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria) or no stomach acid (achlorhydria). Hypochlorhydria is a serious overlooked problem and can cause the following symptoms:
- Acid reflux or heartburn (yes, your heartburn could be due to too little stomach acid)
- Gas, bloating, belching
- A heavy, long-lasting full feeling in the stomach
- Soft, brittle or peeling nails
- Hair loss in women
- Dilated blood vessels on the face
- Muscle cramps
- Chronic bacterial, yeast and parasitic infections
- Constipation, diarrhea or both (IBS symptoms)
Normal Stimuli to the Production of Stomach Acid:
Thinking about food, chewing, certain foods in the stomach (protein, milk, calcium salts, and coffee) and overt aggressive states all stimulate the release of stomach acid (HCL).
When the acid enters the small intestine it stimulates gall bladder contraction, pancreatic enzyme and bicarbonate production. This is preparing your body to optimally digest food.
The acid converts pepsin (a stomach enzyme which digests protein) into its active form. Other functions of stomach acid include killing ingested bacteria, yeast and parasites and allowing proper absorption of B12, folic acid, and minerals. Stomach acid levels may also be important in maximizing white blood cell and platelet function.
Risk Factors for Low Stomach Acid
- Age: As you age, your production of stomach acid decreases. Many adults 50 or older have low stomach acid
- Antacid use: If you have taken antacids before for an extended period of time, you are likely low in stomach acid
- History of an eating disorder: After a long period of calorie restriction, your body will no longer produce stomach acid anymore.
- Vegan, Vegetarian or Low-Protein Diet: Your body will learn that it no longer needs to produce stomach acid at the same amount as it needed to when you were eating meat. Stomach acid is essential for breaking down protein, most notably animal protein. But digesting plant protein also requires stomach acid so if you are a vegetarian that struggles with chronic indigestion, you may be low in HCl.
- Chronic overeating.
- Chronic stress:. If you eat in a stressful state (ie. at your desk, in your car, at the dinner table with screaming children, anxious), your body will not product adequate amounts of stomach acid. In order for stomach acid to be produced, you need to be in a relaxed state. See below for Food Hygiene tips.
- Type A blood type: People with this blood type are classically low producers of stomach acid, or HCl.
Common Diseases Associated with Low Stomach Acid
- Diabetes mellitus
- Hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Adrenal fatigue
- Chronic hepatitis
- Chronic gastritis or GERD
- Adult acne
- SIBO or other chronic GI infections (remember we need stomach acid to sterilize the gut)
Testing for Hypo/Achlorhydria
Gastrotest measures stomach pH. The gastrotest is a screening test for hypochlorhydria.
Heidelburg test measures stomach pH, time required for reacidification and pH after challenge, stomach emptying time and small intestinal pH. Reveals the proper amount of hydrochloric acid needed to normalize stomach acid level.
A physician-supervised trial of supplemental HCl is also a way to determine if you are low in stomach acid. Talk with your naturopathic doctor about whether or not supplementing with stomach acid may be a good step for you.
Food Hygiene Tips- An Essential Component in Stomach Acid Production
1) Chew food thoroughly and take your time.
2) Eat when hungry, rather than when trying to “stuff” emotions.
3) Avoid overeating or excess fluids with meals.
4) Avoid eating while driving a vehicle, on the run, etc.
5) Avoid excessive sugar
6) Take a short walk after eating if possible
Support Strategies for Hypochlorhydria
1. Mix 1-2 tsps organic apple cider vinegar in a small amount of water and drink 15-20 minutes before a meal.
2. Use botanical bitters 15-20 minutes before meals, if recommended. You can also eat bitter foods.
3) Supplement with betaine hydrochloride, if recommended.
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.