Do you have low stomach acid?
A healthy digestive system is the foundation of not only good digestive function but also the health of your whole body. In my clinic one of the most common complaints I come across are symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and constipation. However when the digestive function is under-par it can also give rise to many other symptoms and disorders which may seem unrelated. In this article I am going to explore the role the stomach has in digestive health and how it is vital that it is functioning optimally.
In many ways digestion begins when we see, smell and anticipate food. Our digestive juices start flowing and our body prepares for a meal. In ancient medicine it is known that the more appetising our food looks and smells, the increased capacity we have to digest it.
The action of chewing is one of the most important aspects of digestion. Enzymes in saliva begin to break down starches as the digestive process begins. Upon swallowing our food it passes from the mouth down through the oesophagus into the stomach. On average it takes about 9 seconds to get there. Usually, food stays in the stomach for about 2 hours whilst it is being broken down.
In the stomach there is a concentration of hydrochloric acid, which is produced by the parietal cells of the stomach lining. The pH of this acid should be between 1.8 and 2.6. This is incredibly acidic; if you got it directly on your skin it would burn. If it weren’t for the presence of a layer of mucous coating the stomach would, essentially digest itself.
The Hydrochloric acid (HCl) serves a number of functions. This bath of acid enables the proteins to be broken down into the individual amino acids so that they can be digested by the enzyme, pepsin.
HCl also serves to kill a number of pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, yeast and fungi. Therefore it is an important defence to stop us getting food poisoning and infections. For example e-coli doesn’t survive below a pH of 3.5.
What happens when you have low Hydrochloric acid?
There are two main problems that occur when the HCl is insufficient; that of absorption and preventing infection.
In the situation of low HCL (hypo-chloridia) or no HCl (a-chloridia) the first stages of digestion do not happen properly. If there is not enough acid then also there will be shortages in the production of pepsin. This means that the protein isn’t getting broken down efficiently into the individual amino acids. The result being, the body not receiving a sufficient quantity or variety of protein.
What causes low HCL?
As we age, the parietal cells became less efficient at producing HCl. Certainly by the time someone is 50 years old the HCl levels usually begin to decline and by 60’s and 70’s the majority of people are not producing enough.
There are a number of medications, which are prescribed for symptoms of ‘indigestion’ and gastric reflex such as ‘proton pump inhibitors’. They reduce the production of HCl by the parietal cells. This can reduce the pH of the HCl to around 3.5 or even more alkaline and they are commonly taken long term.
Alcohol can cause low hcl, because it can damage the parietal cells.
Stress can also interfere with the production.
Deficiency of certain nutrients, such as zinc, can in itself create HCl production problems. This can cause a cycle of further deficiency.
Other factors that can play a part; consumption of antibiotics, mercury amalgam fillings and genetic predisposition.
What happens if we have low HCL
As mentioned, the acid in the stomach enables us to breakdown food stuffs, so that it can be properly absorbed. Low HCI commonly causes vitamin and mineral deficiency. Low vitamin B12 is a particular problem, as low HCl means low intrinsic factor levels. This is co-factor produced by the stomach cells that enable this nutrient to be absorbed later on in the digestive tract.
HCl protects us from the infiltration of dangerous parasites, yeasts, fungi and bacteria. Therefore if the pH of the HCl isn’t acidic enough we will then be prone to diarrhoea and upset digestion, as the hydrochloric acid isn’t acidic enough to kill the bad guys.
Food that is not effectively digested in the stomach puts an added burden on the small intestine and gut. This can cause dysbiosis, a situation where there is an inbalance of bacterial flora. This can give rise to gut permeability syndrome where the wrong particles of the food begin to get absorbed, creating allergic reactions in the gut. Some research suggests that this is linked to the manifestation of rheumatoid arthritis and other auto-immune disorders.
Low HCl also results in some degree of malnutrition:
Such as deficiency of:
B vitamins especially B12
Minerals such as:
Iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium and copper
All manner of symptoms and problems:
Eczema and skin conditions
Feeling of excessive fullness after you eat
Increasing number of food sensitivities and allergies
Persistent yeast infections, especially those triggered after eating yeast
Problems with appetite, excessive or lack of appetite
Quick onset of bloating upon eating
Regular feeling of nausea after eating
Thread veins on the face
Unexplained hair loss and thinning
Weak, thin and or peeling finger nails
Underweight, even though eating enough calories
Some practitioners have linked it to:
Degenerative Disorders of all kinds
Gut Permeability Syndrome
Susceptibility to infections;
such as from yeast, fungi, parasites, bacterial and viral infections.
The Acid Test
There are a number of tests available, such as The Heidelberg test, but this can be expensive.
However there is a test, which can easily be done at home that I have found really useful.
First thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, before eating or drinking anything place ¼ tsp of Bicarbonate of Soda in 250 ml (8 fl.oz) glass of water. Drink the mixture. Then with a stop watch, time how long it takes to begin belching.
1 to 2 minutes: normal HCl levels
2 to 3 minutes: normal to slightly low levels
3 to 5 minutes: hypo-chloridia, low levels
5 minutes or more: a-chloridia potentially no HCl.
If there is enough hydrochloric acid then you will normally start belching within 2 minutes. The belching is caused by carbon dioxide gas created by a chemical reaction between the HCl and the bicarbonate of soda.
Restoring healthy acid levels
In ancient medicine the ‘fire of digestion’ is seen as one of the most important factors in maintaining good health. It is an analogy for the overall power of our digestion. In modern language it translates to our HCl, digestive enzymes and absorption that food undergoes. There are a number of simple ways which can help restore the HCl and the vitality of our digestion.
This traditional remedy involves taking at least 1 tsp of cider vinegar in a 100ml of water, 15 minutes before each meal. This can be increased up to 5 tsps per dose. The pH of cider vinegar is about only 2.5, but it still seems to be helpful. Many people find this does help their digestion, and after a few weeks do better on the acid test.
Is more within the range that we need at a pH 2.2. This is a classic digestive remedy in most places around the world. A squeeze, or juice of a whole lemon taken in a little water 10 minutes before food as a digestive stimulant. Make sure that you swill water around your mouth thoroughly after drinking the citrus juice to protect your tooth enamel.
Taking herbal bitters can stimulate digestive function. The formula ‘swedish bitters’ can be taken before food to promote digestion.
Adding black pepper can dramatically increase the absorption of nutrients. Using fresh ginger in tea and in food on a regular basis.
The herb Meadowsweet seems to be able to regulate HCl levels, either increasing them if too low, or decreasing them if too high.
Digestive Tea, that contains herbs such as cardamom, ginger, clove, fennel and cinnamon. Drink at least 3 cups a day.
Our digestive system responds well to a regular routine. Make sure that you eat at least two out of three meals, at the same time every day. The most important being, your midday meal and not eating too late at night. Sitting down to eat, in a relaxed environment being of utmost importance.
Chewing your food thoroughly gives your body a chance to produce sufficient digestive fluids and means it is easier to digest.
It is possible to take a supplement called Betaine Hydrochloride for those with a serious problem. However this is a strong remedy and should be taken under professional supervision, as too much can cause excess acidity. I have found that gradual changes with food, herbs and supplements usually works well.
Philip Weeks is an expert in Natural Medicine and is a Master Herbalist and Acupuncturist. His first book ‘Make Yourself Better’ is being released by ‘Singing Dragon’ in January 2012. www.philipweeks.co.uk