The Crucial Role of Stomach Acid & Its Surprising Ties to Your Health
We're making our way down the north to south route of the digestive system. In post #1, we talked about how digestion begins in the head, and the 1 simple fix you can make to get digestion started off on the right track. (Missed that post? Check it out here).
Now we discuss digestion in the stomach, and most importantly, the importance (yes, importance) of stomach acid.
You may be especially interested in this information if you suffer from acid reflux ("heartburn") or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). However, if you have any digestive issues (such as bloating, ulcers, constipation, or gas), skin problems (such as acne, rashes, or eczema), an autoimmune condition (such as MS, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto's, or Psoriasis), or allergies (including both seasonal and food), you'll want to read on.
You may be surprised to know that these issues (and more) are linked to low stomach acid.
Common issues tied to low stomach acid include:
Bloating, belching, or gas immediately after eating
Diarrhea or constipation
Food sensitivities or allergies
Nutrient deficiencies such as iron (anemia)
Weak or cracking nails
Dry skin or eczema
Chronic yeast infections
And if you're managing or trying to resolve digestive issues by using acid suppressors (like TUMS), acid blockers, or PPIs (proton pump inhibitors), I'm here to break some news to you: None of these medications are working to improve your digestion. None of these are helping- but more likely, are harming- your overall health and can be a contributing factor to the health issues you're experiencing. Now that millions of people (over 15 million Americans alone) have been relying on these medications for years and years, new information is coming to light as to the serious drawbacks of long-term usage- such as osteoporosis, dementia, and heart disease.
WHAT?! HOW!? WHY?! I know you may be confused. We're bombarded with messages that stomach acid is bad. That acid reflux is an issue of having too much stomach acid, so we need to suppress, or even block it. But this couldn't be further from the truth.
Stomach acid is essential to health. It's essential to digestion and nutrient absorption. It's essential to a healthy immune system.
You chew your food and mix it with saliva and enzymes. When this mixture (called "bolus") is swallowed, it passes through the esophagus into the stomach. Here, it meets stomach acid (or hydrochloric acid). Stomach acid's very low pH (which makes it so acidic) allows it to be a powerful digestive and immune aid. It's main roles are:
Killing pathogenic bacteria and yeast normally present in food
Breaking down proteins into essential amino acids
Stimulating the remainder of the digestive cascade (primarily the pancreas and small intestine) in order to further breakdown food and extract nutrients.
If proteins aren't broken down properly into the stomach, they'll arrive largely in tact in the small intestine and become irritants and immune stimulators (proteins are viewed by the immune system as foreign!) If the pH of the chyme (what the bolus is called once it mixes with stomach acid) is not low enough (acidic), it won't smoothly and efficiently pass from the stomach through the pyloric sphincter, on its way to the small intestine. This can lead to sluggish digestion, lack of nutrient absorption leading to deficiencies, and intestinal permeability leading to food allergies and immune complications! (we'll discuss this more in part 3 of this series).
Like a domino effect, improper digestion in the stomach negatively affects the rest of the digestive cascade! We need stomach acid. By neutralizing it or worse, suppressing it's production, we're shutting down a crucial aspect of digestion. We're not breaking down proteins properly, we're slowing down digestive function, we're allowing pathogens into our gut (where the immune system lies), and we're decreasing our ability to absorb nutrients- nutrients that build our cells, tissues, and hormones. So you can see how suppressing stomach acid over time can become problematic!
So what causes acid reflux and GERD?
Acid reflux occurs when undigested food and stomach acid back-flows from the stomach up into the esophagus. It occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (a ring of muscle between the esophagus and the stomach) doesn't close tightly enough, and therefore, keep the contents of the stomach from moving up. (GERD is diagnosed when the acid reflux is chronic).
Acid reflux and GERD are no joke, either. Repeated bathing of the esophagus's soft tissues with corrosive stomach acid can seriously damage them and lead to ulcers (which can eventually become cancerous!)
Mainstream medicine tells us that acid reflux results when there is too much stomach acid. Makes sense right? We're producing so much stomach acid, so it has nowhere to go, so it comes up! This is actually wrong.
Most often, acid reflux is an issue of not producing enough stomach acid. What is happening, is that food is not being properly broken down in the stomach, so it struggles to pass into the small intestine. When this mixture just sits in the stomach, it causes pressure, which weakens the lower esophageal sphincter, causing it to open more frequently. It can't deal with the pressure.
So what would cause low stomach acid (or hypochlorhydria)? Production of stomach acid is hindered by a number of habits and facets of modern lifestyle such as:
Use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like Ibuprofen
Mineral deficiencies (particularly zinc)
Processed food intake (especially wheat, dairy, soy, and refined carbohydrates)
Environmental toxins (such as pesticides and chemicals in beauty products)
Low stomach acid can also be exacerbated if you have sluggish adrenal or thyroid glands.
So what do you do if you suffer from acid reflux, GERD, or any health issues that correlate with low stomach acid?
You've just completed Step 1: Educating yourself on the issue! (For further reading, I highly recommend this book).
Get to the roots by supporting a healthy gut, especially focusing on the stomach.
You can do this by:
Slowing down when you eat and chewing well
Read this blog post if you haven't already.
Lessening (ideally eliminating) processed food intake
Foods with lengthy ingredients lists or ingredients you can't pronounce or recognize
Avoiding refined sugar & sweeteners
White sugar, corn syrup, artificial sweeteners
Drink plenty of water! (Aim for at least 1/2 your body weight in ounces daily)
Eating more gut-nourishing foods such as:
Including gut-soothing foods and such as:
Adding in naturally bitter and acidic foods (only if ulcer is not present) such as:
Bitter greens such as broccoli rabe, kale, collard greens, escarole, and mustard greens
Raw apple cider vinegar
Fresh lemon and lime juices
Pickles (preferably raw if you can!)
Considering an acid-blocker weaning protocol (only under the supervision of a trained professional)
Keep in mind: when digestive issues rear their ugly head, it's an opportunity to ask "why"? It's an opportunity to explore deeper issues that may be affecting your health.
Need more help? Contact me to get started on a plan to boost your gut health. Every one is different, so there's really no one-sized-fits all approach.