Yummy in My Tummy-Why Stomach Acid is Essential
So many people I see today are prescribed drugs like Prilosec and other proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) or take over the counter antacid drugs to treat their acid reflux or indigestion. It seems to be the thought in our culture today that people produce too much stomach acid. These drugs are meant to be a temporary fix of the acute symptoms and were never intended for chronic use. Our stomachs are meant to be acidic and producing too much stomach acid is a very rare issue. More often these problems arise from too LITTLE stomach acid and taking these drugs only compounds the problem.
Digestion starts in the brain. This occurs when we smell food or even think about eating. This causes the stimulation of saliva production, increases gastric secretions, and pancreatic secretions, even before putting the food in our mouth. Imagine then how cooking at home and preparing a meal can be beneficial to your digestion. Once we take a bite of food, we physically break down food by chewing. In order for the stomach to do its role in chemically breaking down food into nutrients, we must help it out by grinding our food up into smaller pieces. Our saliva plays a role in breaking down of carbohydrates and fats and helps to lubricate the food for the swallowing process. This chewing also signals hormones, enzymes, and gastric juices to further instigate the digestion process. The more you chew your food, the easier it is and requires less energy for the stomach to chemically break it down. The digestive process takes a lot of energy for our bodies to accomplish. The less energy needed for this, the more energetic you can feel. Thorough chewing can eliminate bloating, gas, and abdominal pain all by itself. This step alone can help those struggling with weight retention- it is the easiest way to slow down at a meal and achieve satiety.
Once we swallow our food, it travels down our esophagus and into our stomach. When the stomach receives food it secretes hydrochloric acid, HCl, to break down the individual nutrients, primarily proteins, and kills any pathogens that may be in our food. We need our stomach to have a pH of 1.5- 1.7 to accomplish this. We also need proper stomach acid for the absorption of B12 and iron. If you have low stomach acid it can result in any of the following symptoms:
Bacterial or fungal overgrowth
belching or gas an hour after eating
bloating in the mid to lower abdomen
diarrhea- either chronic or shortly after consuming a meal
excessive feeling of fullness
increased incidence of parasitic infections
sweat with a strong odor
stomach upset after taking vitamins
a strong desire to skip breakfast or other meal
sleepiness after a meal
stomach pain and distress
weakened hair, nails, skin
All these symptoms can then contribute to chronic health problems. Health conditions associated with low stomach acid include:
Allergies, Asthma, Autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis, Chronic candida, Chronic fatigue, Chronic hepatitis, Chronic hives, Dry skin, Eczema, Gallbladder disease, Gastrointestinal infections and parasites, Hypoglycemia, Osteoporosis, Reduced night vision and macular degeneration, and Thyroid disorders.
Perhaps many of these diseases or ailments we associate with aging could just be from lower stomach acid. Again, we want our stomachs to be acidic. When the food leaves the stomach it should no longer be recognizable. Therefore, if you see food particles in your poop, there is a problem. Make sure you are thoroughly chewing and that your stomach acid is up to par.
The things that can cause low stomach acid are:
The aging process
Autoimmune condition that fights against the acid forming cells in your stomach
Chronic over eating/the standard American diet
H. Pylori infection
Low protein diets
How can you test/treat for low stomach acid? According to J. Balch MD in his book Prescription for Nutritional Healing, you can do a simple test at home. Purchase a Betaine HCL with pepsin supplement. Prepare a high protein meal and in the middle of the meal take one Betaine HCl pill and then finish your meal. If you experience burning or hotness in your chest, you likely produce adequate HCl. If you feel nothing, than your stomach acid is low. At your next meal, try 2 tablets, and continue to add at each meal until you feel the hotness, then back it down by one and that is the dose you will take with your meals. A consistent dose at meal time along with removing any food intolerances (which you can discover with an elimination diet) may help increase stomach acid naturally. Individuals with low stomach acid may need 5-8 pills before experiencing the maximum dose. If your stomach acid stays low despite these changes, ask your doctor for an H. Pylori test. You should not try this if you are taking PPI’s, antacids, have a peptic ulcer, gastritis, are taking NSAIDS, corticosteroids, or aspirin.
Acid reflux is due to what you eat and the function of your lower esophageal sphincter, which is the door between your stomach and your esophagus. When people consume too much coffee, chocolate, alcohol, and most particularly sugar and processed foods this muscle gets weakened. This allows the undigested food and some of the gastric juices from the stomach to flow back up the esophagus and into the mouth. This is not a good feeling and I understand why anyone would want that quick fix to make it go away. But meanwhile, cut those foods from your diet and not surprisingly over time when people optimize their stomach acid, their symptoms go away and the sphincter muscle gets stronger and more controlled.
This is just another painful example of how our healthcare system steers us wrong. Acute solutions are not meant to be lifelong behaviors. Often some tweeks to your diet and lifestyle can go a long way. If you are afraid to do this on your own, contact a functional medicine nutrition counselor to help. I will be adding this to Parker River Dental’s services in the very near future as well as online contacts.
Here’s to your health.
Written by: Dr. Robin Davies, DMD , CHC