Stomach acid has been portrayed as a bad guy in the mainstream media. We see TV commercials with people clutching their abdomens and feeling better after popping a powdery pill or drinking some pink liquid that neutralizes the evil, burning acid. It’s common to assume that stomach acid needs to be reduced in order to rectify common digestive problems such as acid reflux, heartburn and indigestion.
Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude couldn’t be further from the truth. Up to 50 percent of North Americans actually have stomach acid that is lacking the acidity required to break down food properly.
While antacids and similar medications can provide temporary relief from digestive discomforts, they actually make the problem worse in the long term by neutralizing what little stomach acid is available. Hypochlorhydria, the state of having too little or ineffective stomach acid, has been associated with the development of stomach cancer, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.
Stomach acid performs a number of vital functions, yet it is under threat from a natural age-related decline, as well as a diet heavy in processed foods and lacking healthy nutritious ones.
We need stomach acid in order to:
- Digest proteins and break them into the amino acids that are used to build the various types of tissues and structures in the body.
- Stimulate digestive enzymes and bile produced by the pancreas and intestines. These substances are vital for the breakdown of carbohydrates and fats.
- Act as a first defense against invading yeasts, bacteria and parasites that will otherwise make it past the stomach and cause infections.
- Properly absorb some minerals and nutrients, such as iron, copper, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12. Low stomach acid has been associated with anemia and vitamin B12 deficiency.
This explains why you shouldn’t take medications that neutralize stomach acid. If you have acid reflux, try these natural home remedies instead.
Here are some signs of low stomach acid and a breakdown of the resulting health concerns, plus some natural fixes you can use right away.
Signs of low stomach acid
If you feel poorly when you eat meat or protein-rich foods, low stomach acid may be to blame. Many people take nausea or sluggishness after eating meat as a sign that they should become vegetarian. While this may be true for some people at some life stages, it is a good idea to test for hypochlorhydria. Eating sustainable, healthy and humane sources of animal protein is critical for lasting health for most people.
Along a similar vein, those who have previously chosen to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet may have decreased hydrochloric acid production, because it is naturally downregulated by the body when little animal protein is consumed. If you choose to reintroduce animal foods, this must be done gradually so that acid production can resume accordingly.
Other digestive discomforts can also result from inadequate stomach acid production. Acid reflux and GERD, or heartburn, seem to be related to overproduction of acid but are actually caused by acid escaping from the stomach into the soft, sensitive tissues of the esophagus. This uncomfortable condition results from pressure in the stomach due to low stomach acid.
In addition, burping, gas, bloating or heaviness after eating are clear indicators that the digestive process is not happening as it should. It is likely that the excessive growth of bacteria (left unchecked due to low stomach acid) results in fermentation of the food you eat, with gas as a by-product. The smelly burps that many people have are a sign that food is sitting in the stomach for too long, when it should already have moved into the small intestine. When pH levels are too low in the stomach, the signal that should move food onward into the intestine never happens, and food is left to provide a feast for unhealthy bacteria. Bacterial infections such as H. pylori can result.
This incomplete digestion can also contribute to constant hunger, because nutrients cannot be absorbed when food is left whole by inadequate stomach acid. The body believes it is undernourished and continues to trigger hunger signals.
Digestive illness such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac symptoms, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis that just won’t get better even after numerous diet and lifestyle changes could be a sign of low stomach acid.
Since a lack of strong stomach acid can let bacteria grow beyond optimal levels, bad breath can result. If you have persistent bad breath, it may not be coming from your teeth, tongue or gums, but rather from deeper down. When food sits in the gut, bacteria breeds and lets off foul gases that can come out of your mouth.
Another “cosmetic” side effect of hypochlorhydria is weak and peeling fingernails. This results from deficiencies in proteins and essential fatty acids that are missed out on when food is not properly digested.
How to test for low stomach acid at home
Besides looking out for the above signs and symptoms, here is a simple test you can do in your kitchen that may help you determine whether or not you have low stomach acid — all you need is some water and baking soda. The test is based on a chemical reaction produced by baking soda reacting with your stomach acid.
- First thing in the morning, mix a quarter of a teaspoon of baking soda into a glass of cold water and drink it down calmly without swallowing much air.
- Set a timer and see how long it takes for you to produce a significant belch. Those with stronger stomach acid with a healthy pH level should belch within two or three minutes.
If it takes longer than three minutes to belch, it would be worth doing further testing with your trusted health practitioner to investigate the possibility of low stomach acid.
How to fix low stomach acid naturally
If you’re not the type to need an official diagnosis, there are many ways to improve stomach acid production yourself. There is no harm in these natural methods, since your body will find its own balance (in contrast with pharmaceuticals, which force an effect on the body whether it is helpful or not).
Stimulating digestion with raw apple cider vinegar or Swedish bitters can be very helpful. The bitter flavors make you salivate, which in turn signals the production of bile and acid for digestion.
If you have a trusted holistic health practitioner to work with, supplementing with betaine hydrochloride can be very helpful for those with low stomach acid. However, doing this on your own is not recommended, because the appropriate dosage is very individualized.
Relaxation before and after a meal can also go a long way toward improving digestion. The body doesn’t put any energy toward digestion when we are chronically stressed and in an agitated state of mind. Meditative practices such as deep breathing or a slow stroll are good ways to get into prime digestion mode.
Hopefully this article has shed some light on common symptoms that otherwise seem unrelated. Who would have thought that peeling fingernails, vitamin B12 deficiency and bloating after meals could be tied to the same underlying problem?
Dial up your stomach acid naturally and find relief today!
—The Alternative Daily