We’ve always been told that we are what we eat. But if you go a bit further, you’ll understand that we are actually what we absorb. Nowadays we have much less nutrients inside our cells than our grandparents. Modern agricultural systems and lower stomach acid levels (HCl) are two of the main reasons.
The digestion process starts in the stomach
Think of the digestive system as a factory that processes food into energy. As soon as food enters the mouth, the teeth chew it into smaller pieces. Amylases in the saliva start to break down a small amount of starches into sugars. After a mouthful of food is swallowed, wavelike contractions of the walls of the esophagus move it down into the stomach. This is the place where powerful chemicals of digestion are mixed with the food mass. In addition, pieces are churned smaller still, and acid and enzymes begin to break down proteins. In the small intestine, other enzymes break down the food further until the particles are small enough to be absorbed. Then, the large intestine reabsorbs most of the water from the leftover, indigestible matter and eliminates the rest.
If HCl, pancreatic juice and bile are in short supply, the whole process gets off to a poor start and slows down digestion. The protein from the food sits in the stomach and putrefies instead of being digested. The sphincter between the stomach and duodenum delays opening because the protein is not properly broken down into peptides. And the small intestine does not want whole proteins. The inadequate levels of HCl causes dysfunction of the esophageal sphincter as well. This which allows the acid to travel from the stomach into the esophagus causing the pain known as acid reflux. This faulty digestive process is very often associated with low hydrochloric acid.
Symptoms of low stomach acid are related to impaired digestion, as well as a higher risk of infection and reduced absorption of nutrients from food. Those symptoms may include:
- Upset stomach
- Nausea when taking vitamins and supplements
- Desire to eat when not hungry
- Hair loss
- Undigested food in stool
- Weak, brittle fingernails
- GI infections
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Deficiencies of other vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B-12, calcium, and magnesium
- Protein deficiency
- Neurological issues, such as numbness, tingling, and vision changes
The value of Stomach Acid
- The main role of stomach acid and pepsin is to break down the proteins in our diet. When you have a lack of HCl, you will also have undigested protein particles. They will flow into the small intestine, where they can’t get broken down because there’s no acid. In addition to not being absorbed, this creates another problem called dysbiosis. Dysbiosis is a medical term that means your gut flora is imbalanced. In other words, there is too many pathogenic bacteria vs. friendly bacteria. As these undigested protein particles ferment, they create a very nice host for pathogens. The main ones are H. pylori, C. difficile, candida and SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth). This leads to the gaps that appear in the normally tight junctions in between the cells that line the intestines. This condition is known as leaky gut. This situation facilitates food sensitivities, which are another problem that come along when this process happens.
- Together with breaking down proteins, stomach acid plays another essential role. It ionizies minerals and other nutrients in order to enhance absorption.
- The secretion of HCl is a very important protective mechanism against harmful pathogens. The environment inside a healthy stomach is highly acidic (pH 1-2). This kills most of the bacteria coming from the food or liquids. This protects the stomach and the intestinal tract from abnormal bacterial growth. Use of antacid medication reduces stomach acid and changes the pH of the stomach, which allows external bacteria to grow. Some antacids may reduce stomach acid between 90 and 95 percent. This increases the risk of salmonella, c. difficile, giardia, and listeria infections.
- Without sufficient secretion of HCl in the stomach, the pancreas does not get the signal to secrete its digestive enzymes. This further reduces the digestion of food.
Adequate stomach acid levels help to prevent the growth of unwanted microorganisms in the digestive tract as well as increase absorption of vitamins and minerals. If you have low stomach acid levels, supplementation with HCl, like Nutri HCl Support from NutriDyn, Betaine HCl from DFH and Enzymatic Control from ATP will help to significantly improve your digestion, thereby enhancing health and performance.
Assess your stomach acid level
One of the first things I do with my clients, when it comes to their nutrition, is assess their stomach acid levels. In fact, many supplement and dietary protocols won’t create the desired effect with insufficient digestion.
The concept of using HCl as well as the way to assess the levels of stomach acid were introduced to fitness industry by Dr. Sonja Pettersen in 1994 and has been used since then. The test is very simple. All you need to do is swallow a dose of HCl in the middle of a meal and wait for symptoms of burning – it’s pain free, nothing to fear.
The HCl Test
Say you are having a 200g steak.
Eat 100g, take one capsule of 200-400mg HCl.
Eat the rest of the meal.
Wait 15 minutes. If there is no burning sensation you are at least 200-400mg HCl deficient.
At your next meal increase the dose by 1 capsule of 200-400mg and repeat the test.
Do the test increasing the dosage every meal by 200-400mg until you feel a burning sensation. Once you do, back off 1 capsule. This is your dosage. There is no need to repeat the test to insure the result.
NOTE: DON’T GO OVER 1600MG!
No reaction at this dosage is proof enough that your stomach acid production is poor.
In 15 years of practice I’ve only seen 2 people pass the test at 200mg. Bob Rakowski, one of the best functional medicine practitioners, says that roughly 99% of his patients fail the test.
The suggested products for the test are:
- Digestive Complete from NutriDyn (with 300 mg of HCl in 1 capsule),
- Digestzymes from DFH (with 200 mg of HCl in 1 capsule)
- Enzymatik Control from ATP (with 400 mg of HCl in 1 capsule).
Causes that can affect secretion of HCl:
- Age – the older you are, the less HCl your body secretes.
- Stress – chronic stress negatively impacts production of stomach acid.
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies – deficiency of zinc or B vitamins may also lead to low stomach acid. These deficiencies may be caused by inadequate dietary intake or by nutrient loss from stress, smoking, or alcohol consumption.
- Refined carbohydrates intake
- Carbonated beverages consumption
- Chronic helicobacter pylori infection – if left untreated, it can result in decreased stomach acid.
- Prior gastric bypass surgery
- Antacid medication – long use of medications, including antacids, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), and H2 receptor antagonists.
The issue with PPIs
More than 15 million Americans use antacids or acid-blocker medications to treat acid reflux, although research clearly shows that PPIs are outrageously overprescribed and misused, and do far more harm than good. The drugs come either in prescription or over-the-counter forms. They include well-known names like Prevacid, Prilosec, Nexium, Zantac, Tagamet, Pepcid AC, Protonix, and Aciphex.
There are over 16,000 articles supporting the fact that suppressing stomach acid does not treat the problem. PPIs will typically raise the gastric pH above the normal range of 1-2, effectively inhibiting the action of pepsin – an enzyme involved in protein digestion that can be irritating to the stomach. Although raising the pH can reduce symptoms, it also substantially blocks a normal body process. Studies show that while these drugs relieve symptoms fast, the longer you take them, the greater the risk of serious side effects, including:
- Increases the risk of esophageal cancer by 340%.1
- People using acid blockers were 4.5 times as likely to develop pneumonia.2
- Individuals that were taking high doses of acid-blocking drugs for longer than a year had a 260 percent increase in hip fracture rates compared to those, who didn’t take acid blocker.2, 3
- Magnesium deficiency. Long-term use of proton pump inhibitors can lead to serious hypomagnesaemia.4
- Vitamin B12 deficiency – acid blocking drugs reduce the secretion of intrinsic factor (a compound that binds to and assists the absorption of vitamin B12).2
- Results from multiple data sources found use of PPIs to have a 16% increased risk for a heart attack and a two-fold increase in dying from heart disease compared to those not taking PPIs.2
- Gastric bacterial overgrowth.5
- Increased Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. According to research, published in JAMA Neurology, seniors over the age of 75 who use PPIs on a regular basis had a 44 percent increased risk of dementia compared with non-users. Two other studies concluded those taking PPIs were at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.6
Most of those who suffer from acid reflux believe that they have too much stomach acid. In fact, it is very common that a lack of gastric acid secretion is actually the cause of this problem.
Also referred to as heartburn, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or peptic ulcer disease is a very common health condition. It is characterized by a burning sensation originating behind the breastbone, sometimes traveling up into the throat. In some cases, this burning pain can be severe enough to be mistaken for a heart attack.
The original theory was that acid reflux is a symptom of too much acid in the stomach. However it was a serious medical mistake that still affects a large percentage of the world population. Originally, antacid medications were created to heal ulcers after H. Pylori infection. At that time, they were prescribed for a maximum of 2 weeks of use.
Unfortunately, they have become popular in the medical community to address acid reflux. This is a problem because those medications do not address the real root of the issue. Most people suffering from symptoms of acid reflux or GERD may actually be experiencing hypochlorhydria or achlorhydria. Those are conditions where the secretion of hydrochloric acid (HCl) in the digestive juices of the stomach are low or absent, respectively.
Hiatal hernia can be another cause of acid reflux.
This is a condition where a small part of the stomach bulges through the hiatus. The hiatus is the space in the diaphragm that allows the esophagus to connect with the stomach. When a hiatal hernia becomes big enough, it can cause stomach acid and undigested food to re-enter the esophagus, causing acid reflux. This condition is quite common, especially in obese individuals. This is because intra-abdominal fat is prone to increase pressure on the stomach causing a hiatal hernia. Many chiropractors are skilled in an adjustment to address this. Physical therapy on the area, as well as self-help techniques may also work.
Most processes of the body decrease with age
We normally do not produce more hormones and enzymes as we age. Low HCl level is a condition that rises as people get older. In fact, one report examined 1590 individuals. Researchers found 19% of people in their fifties did not produce HCl. This increased to 69% of individuals once they reached their eighties.
The entire process of digestion is directed by the brain, but it all starts with the appetite
According to physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who received a Nobel prize in 1904 for his discovery, if you smell, watch, and hear the food, the HCl production gets stimulated before food even touches your mouth. If you look at the screen or read a book while you are eating, your body digestion has to rely only on an automatic response of acid release which can be decreased or very delayed.
Traditional herbalists all over the globe agree that herbs with a bitter taste tend to promote digestive secretions and speed up digestion. Bitters increase the appetite by stimulating the taste buds, which “advise” the brain to send signals increasing the secretion of saliva, gastric juices, and digestive enzyme. All of which are necessary for the digestive tract to process food with maximum efficiency. Gentian (Gentiana lutea) is the most popular digestive bitter in Western herbalism. Other bitter digestants include barberry root (Berberis vulgaris), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and artichoke (Cynara scolymus). 7
Ginger has been also shown to increase gastric motility by stimulating gastric contractions, thus reducing food transit times.
Now that you know all the benefits of having proper stomach acid levels. Do the test. Dose accordingly. And maintain a good relationship with food and bitter herbs.
Stay strong and healthy
Coach Carlos Castro
Note: Special thanks to Alyona Medvedeva for the fantastic and extensive research work that made this article possible
- Michael T. Murray. What the Drug Companies Won’t Tell You and Your Doctor Doesn’t Know: The Alternative Treatments That May Change Your Life–and the Prescriptions That Could Harm You, June 30, 2009, p. 67
- Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology 2003, 54, S3, 43–68