“I have too much stomach acid.”
“I have acid reflux, I need to lower my stomach acid.”
“I have heartburn, it must be that I'm eating too much protein.”
“I can't digest much protein, it just sits in my stomach like lead.”
Any of these sound familiar? Perhaps you've uttered one or more of them yourself.
What they all have in common is that they're probably all wrong. While the assumption seems logical that if you FEEL stomach acid that you must have too much, the opposite is true in nearly all cases.
Common symptoms of low stomach acid include:
- burning feeling in gut after meals (heartburn!)
- frequent belching after meals
- feeling of fullness after meals
- stomach upsets easily
- gas, flatulence after meals
- chronic intestinal infections: bacterial, yeasts, parasites
- chronic candida infection (candidiasis)
- undigested food in stools
- known food sensitivities
How could too LITTLE stomach acid FEEL like too much?
When food enters your stomach, it's the job of your stomach (primarily your stomach acid – hydrochloric acid or HCl) to begin to break down, or denature, proteins into amino acids (this process is known as proteolysis) as well as to send the signal downstream to your pancreas to prepare to release digestive enzymes. It's also the job of proper levels of HCl to kill off any microscopic pathogenic material that may be present in our food before they pass through to the small intestine. Frequent food poisoning, anyone? Without appropriate levels of stomach acid, these tasks cannot properly and comfortably be completed.
When you feel acid reflux/heartburn, what's happening is that stomach acid is creeping back up your esophagus, which is naturally an alkaline environment. Since stomach acid is, well, acidic, you FEEL that acid causing a burning sensation. Here's the catch, when stomach acid remains IN your stomach, you don't feel the acid, right? That's because, if all is working properly (and you do not have a gastric ulcer) the lining of your stomach has an intact mucosal lining which forms a barrier so that you don't feel the acid that's there, doing it's job.
But wait, why do I feel reflux from not enough stomach acid?!
When you swallow a bite, you send food down your esophagus to your stomach. Chances are, you didn't chew it that well. Most of us don't chew our food as completely as we should, which isn't helping anything. (Note to reader: CHEW YOUR FOOD. WELL.) When food hits your stomach, it's GO time. Your stomach begins to churn and mix HCl and other digestive enzymes with your food to produce chyme (the blend of denatured food and HCl). According to Chris Kresser, L.Ac, the reflux “is caused by increased pressure in the stomach resulting in a malfunction of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The increase in pressure is caused by bacterial overgrowth and malabsorption of carbohydrates, both of which are precipitated by low stomach acid [emphasis mine]. Reducing bacteria loads and limiting carbohydrate intake have both been shown to greatly improve, and in some cases completely cure, acid reflux and GERD.”
Here's what you can do to naturally increase stomach acid.
1. REMOVE REFINED FOODS, GRAIN PRODUCTS AND OTHER GUT IRRITANTS FROM YOUR DIET.
Consuming foods that are difficult to digest (grains) and that disrupt blood sugar regulation (refined foods, all grain products, sweeteners, etc.) will promote the breakdown of your digestive process. These foods will feed the bad bacteria in your gut and encourage them to proliferate and will also disrupt digestion via increased intestinal permeability (aka: leaky gut). Some other digestion-disruptors include but are not limited to legumes, dairy (mainly pasteurized), alcohol, NSAID drugs, and antibiotics.
2. CHEW YOUR FOOD COMPLETELY.
Okay, that won't really change your stomach acid, but it WILL help your stomach out once food hits it, AND, it helps you get a head start on the next step…
Your body is not equipped to handle digestive functions properly if you are stressed out. You've heard of flight or flight mode, right? Well the opposite of that is rest and digest mode. Clinically speaking we call these sympathetic or parasympathetic dominant modes. While the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your stress response in fight or flight, your parasympathetic (often referred to as the autonomic nervous system, or ANS) nervous system is responsible for the functions that you don't consciously control.
Coincidentally, you can consciously control the sympathetic nervous system by your thoughts (sent as signals via neurotransmitters) and you can actually adjust your breathing and thought process to bring yourself out of a sympathetic dominant mode and into parasympathetic dominant mode. This means you can literally think and breathe your way out of a stress response. You've done that before, right? Well, you may need to do this on a regular basis each time you eat.
The thing is, even if you're not just wrapping up a heart-pounding workout, you may be experiencing a lower-level of chronic stress that's causing your rest and digest mode to suffer. You NEED to calm down before you eat.
4. USE NATURAL DIGESTIVE AIDS / HCl PROMOTORS.
- Reduce your intake of carbohydrates, fiber and sugar/sweeteners in all forms (including artificial), especially fructose. These all promote dysbiosis (imbalanced gut flora) by feeding the bad bacteria in your gut.
- Lemon juice or apple cider vinegar. Try about 1Tbsp in 1oz of water taken 10-20 minutes before a meal.
- Digestive bitters. You can find these in tincture form (liquid in a dropper) many health food stores. Dosage will vary and will be marked on the bottle.
5. SUPPLEMENT WITH HCl TABLETS WITH PEPSIN
You can find these at any health food shop and typically they'll contain betaine HCl. Take 1 with a meal and note any changes or sensations. Add 1 to each dose taking one more at each meal until you feel a slight burning in your upper gastric area. Once you feel that, back off and take the amount that was lower. So, for example, take 1 with meal #1, 2 with meal #2 and 3 with meal #3. If you still feel nothing, keep going until you do. I would estimate that stopping around 5 will ease symptoms even if you still don't feel the burning sensation so more than that may not be necessary. Read more on this topic here.
Also an important warning from Chris Kresser on HCl supplementation: “HCL should never be taken (and this test should not be performed) by anyone who is also using any kind of anti-inflammatory medication such as corticosteroids (e.g. predisone), aspirin, Indocin, ibuprofen (e.g. Motrin, Advil, etc.) or other NSAIDS. These drugs can damage the GI lining that supplementary HCL might aggravate, increasing the risk of gastric bleeding or ulcer.”
If you have started The 21-Day Sugar Detox and are experiencing increased symptoms of low stomach acid, the change in your diet, though for the better, may be what's promoting that feeling. Refer to the steps above for “what to do” and rest assured that this is part of the detox process. Your body is resetting and re-establishing a baseline of HEALTH. Often things feel worse before they get better. This is normal and to be expected. If you have been on a proton pump inhibiting drug for an extended period of time, you will need to take further steps beyond just increasing stomach acid to ensure that you'll begin properly absorbing nutrients from your food again. Refer to the article I've linked to below from Chris Kresser for more on those action steps.
If symptoms of low stomach acid persist for the duration of The 21-Day Sugar Detox, you may be dealing with a more serious issue of a gut pathogen and I recommend contacting either a Certified Nutrition Consultant, a Naturopathic Doctor or an MD who understands your desire to maintain a whole-foods diet to have a stool test conducted. If you have a pathogen (H. Pylori, SIBO, or otherwise), it will be nearly impossible to resolve this issue without clearing the infection from your system first.
Listen to this podcast episode with Chris Kresser where we talked ALL about digestion, when it goes wrong and what to do about it: The Balanced Bites Podcast, Episode #8.
Don't take my word for it, Chris Kresser has written extensively on this topic in a six part series on heartburn and GERD. Check out his series here.