Stomach Acid: Too Much or Too Little?

Something that is all too common nowadays is our inability to properly digest the food we eat. A major culprit is our stressed-out, always-on-the-go lifestyle and of course, eating “food” that our bodies weren’t even meant to consume in the first place (factory-made, processed food for example). What if I told you there was another very, very important piece to this puzzle? What if I told you that indigestion, acid reflux and other digestive troubles stem from not too much stomach acid but too little? Rarely is it the other way around.

This may seem counterintuitive to what we have been told and you know what? I understand the hesitation. You can’t watch T.V. without seeing a commercial for proton pump inhibitors (acid reflux medication) and “Tums” is a common staple in our medicine cabinet. While we’re at it, our doctors prescribe medicine for this common problem left and right without telling us (or perhaps knowing) the real issue: not enough stomach acid.

If this idea goes against common logic, then I urge you to learn how our digestion works. Without getting too technical, here’s an overview:

  • Digestion starts in the brain. The sight and smell of a food triggers the salivary glands to begin producing salivary amylase, an enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates. If we’re eating while we’re rushed, standing or stressed, we’re not giving our brain the chance to register the fact that we’re about to eat, hindering the release of these important solutes.

  • The mouth is the physical gateway to the digestive system where the mechanical breakdown of food begins. Our teeth physically break down food into smaller parts while the salivary glands secrete saliva. If we’re eating too fast and not consciously chewing our food until it becomes mush, we’ve compromised our digestion even more at this point.

Here’s where stomach acid comes into the picture:

  • The stomach continues the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food. Protein triggers our stomach acid to be released, also known as HCL (hydrochloric acid). Stomach acid has a pH of 0.8 which is almost pure acid. HCL is meant to break our food down to the point where it can get passed onto the next part of our digestive system, the small intestine. 

Here is where the majority of dysfunction happens:

When our stomach acid is not strong enough (or is almost nonexistent thanks to something like Prilosec), food stays in the stomach for much too long. Proteins putrefy, fats rancidity and carbohydrates ferment. This is indigestion. This is belching and bloating after a meal. This is chronic throat-clearing and difficulty swallowing. This is acid reflux!

Acid-reducing medication can definitely relieve the symptoms. I don’t think so many people would be on them if they didn’t help in some way. It is important, however, to understand that they are bandaids. They are not only covering up the symptoms, but it sets us up for complications in the future. Not only are we dealing with those uncomfortable consequences, but food can pass through our system undigested which causes more dysfunction, like intestinal permeability. When we have a proper amount of stomach acid, it not only helps break down protein to the point where our bodies can use it, it also destroys food-borne viruses, pathogenic bacteria and parasites. With low acid, one of the body’s first lines of defense against harmful microorganisms becomes compromised. Last but certainly not least, insufficient stomach acid means we’re not absorbing what we eat. Crucial vitamins and minerals are going right through us since stomach acid and other gastric juices are necessary to break down the food to the point where our body can utilize those nutrients. Throughout my learning, it’s clear that many, many health issues stem from the need of more stomach acid. 

I will say this: If someone if dealing with gastritis (where the stomach lining is inflamed), acid-lowering medication can be helpful and appropriate as part of an initial healing protocol. However, long-term use of these types of medications is asking for serious trouble. This is when working with a functional medical doctor is important!

Ways to increase stomach acid to improve digestion:

  • Digestive bitters have been used for thousands of years to alert our stomach to produce the appropriate digestive juices. “As human beings we evolved consuming a vast amount of wild plants, most of which were rich in the bitter flavor. With the birth of industrial agriculture, the bitter flavor was stripped away in exchange for mostly pleasant flavors: sweet, salty and processed food. Today we have a dramatic lack of bitterness in our daily diets.”

  • Apple cider vinegar is an excellent way to encourage stomach acid production. Place 1 tablespoon of ACV is a glass of water (or work your way up to that amount) 10-30 minutes before a meal.

  • HCL supplements are extremely helpful for people who have a difficult time producing enough stomach acid on their own for a variety of reasons. Finding the right dosage should be done with the help of a health practitioner.

  • Eating in a parasympathetic state is absolutely crucial to good digestion and proper stomach acid. Remember, digestion starts in the brain!

If you struggle with digestive issues and suspect low stomach acid could be a reason, seek out help from a functional doctor or nutrition practitioner that will listen to your concerns, tackle the root cause and guide you through the process. Please do not go off (or on) any medication without proper support.

“Never lose sight of the fact that pharmaceutical companies are not in business to cure diseases, but rather to make money for their stockholders. Once a patient is cured, that patient doesn’t need to buy any more drugs. But if his or her symptoms are suppressed, they may be ‘hooked’ on the drugs for life.” — Why Stomach Acid is Good for You by Jonathan Wright and Lane Lenard