Stomach acid is critical for disinfecting and killing off bad microbes and for optimizing protein digestion in the body. When the body is unable to produce enough stomach acid, than inadequate digestion and microbial overgrowth occurs. One of the most important and underappreciated health principles is taking time and creating rituals to improve stomach acid levels.
The normal volume of the stomach acid fluid is 20-100 mL with a pH range from 1.5-3.5. Due to the logarithmic nature of the pH scale, there is a significant difference between a pH of 1.5 and that of 3.0 or 3.5. For healthy protein digestion, the pH should be in the 1.5-2.2 range. That is a big jump and that is why it is so important to improve stomach acid levels for optimal digestion.
Major Functions of Stomach Acid
1Sterilizes the Food: Whenever we consume food, bacteria and other microorganisms come in with the food (even if it was cooked or pasteurized). The stomach acid helps to neutralize the bad invaders we don’t want in our system (1, 2).
2Protein Digestion: Stomach acid is necessary to begin the process of breaking down protein. Have you ever marinated meat in vinegar? Vinegar is not nearly as acidic as what your stomach acid should be, yet, over time it degrades the meat. This is what your stomach acid should be doing in a much quicker fashion.
3Activating Pepsin: Pepsin is a proteolytic enzyme that is necessary for our body to effectively metabolize protein. Stomach acid activates pepsin from its inactive form called pepsinogen.
4Activating Intrinsic Factor: Stomach acid helps to activate intrinsic factor which is a glycoprotein produced in the stomach that is necessary for vitamin B12 absorption.
5Stimulating the Delivery of Bile and Enzymes: Stomach acid helps to stimulate the release of bile from the liver and gall bladder and digestive enzymes from the pancreas.
6Closing the Esophageal Sphincter: Stomach acid is an important trigger for the contraction of the esophageal sphincter (just above the stomach) to protect the soft, delicate tissue of the esophagus from the harsh acids in the stomach.
7Opening the Pyloric Sphincter: Stomach acid helps to active the pyloric sphincter which allows food to move from the stomach to the small intestine.
The Problem With Low Stomach Acid:
When the body is unable to produce enough stomach acid, it is unable to digest protein molecules and key minerals (3). These partially digested protein molecules get into the small intestine and create significant stress on the pancreas to produce adequate enzymes to metabolize the protein effectively.
If this occurs repeatedly over time, it will wear down the pancreatic enzyme storage and cause stress and irritation to the intestinal lining. Additionally, if the protein molecules are not efficiently metabolized we are unable to absorb enough amino acids which are necessary for numerous vital functions of the body. This can lead to amino acid deficiencies, poor healing and a breakdown of various important bodily functions. (4)
The large protein molecules and incomplete digestion irritates the gut lining, leading to leaky gut syndrome. This process can trigger the development of auto-immune activity in the body. Poor digestion also creates an environment suited for the development of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), Candida overgrowth and parasitic infections (5, 6).
When we digest our food poorly it leads to increased inflammatory activity which depletes key minerals and anti-oxidants throughout the body (8). This mineral depletion leads to an inability to form stomach acid and the vicious cycle of poor digestion and chronic inflammation continues (7, 8).
12 Signs that You Have Low Stomach Acid:
The condition of low HCL causes poor digestive motility and sphincter activity. This allows food contents to sit in the stomach and be metabolized by bacteria that are able to survive due to lack of stomach acid. The result of this bacterial fermentation is gas which can cause bloating, cramping, belching, etc.
Here are the most common signs and symptoms that you have low stomach acid production.
1) Gas and Belching: With low HCL, this usually comes on shortly after a meal, within 60 minutes.
2) Acid Reflux: This is most commonly caused by low acid (not too much acid)
3) Bloating and Cramping: The gas production from the bacterial fermentation in the stomach produces this. Again, it typically comes on within an hour of eating.
4) Chronic Bad Breath: This is due to the toxic metabolites produced through bacterial fermentation in the stomach.
5) Bad Body Odor: Poor stomach acid production leads to an overall microbial overgrowth throughout the body. More microbes produce more stinky toxins.
6) Undigested Food in Stools: This is obvious, you are not able to completely metabolize the food you are consuming.
7) Aversion to Meat: Many people with low stomach acid desire to avoid meat and have digestive problems (as described above) when they eat it. Especially red meat which is usually tougher and depends upon more HCL than whiter meats for digestion.
8) Tired After Meals: If the digestive process has to work twice as hard, it will cost us a lot of energy, leaving us tired.
9) Feeling Full But Still Hungry: You are full because food isn’t leaving your stomach, but you are hungry because you are not absorbing nutrients effectively.
11) Weak Fingernails: If your fingernails break, chip or peel easily it is a classic sign of nutrient deficiencies, especially protein, minerals and B12.
12) Frequent Nausea: Because your stomach gets full quickly, it can often trigger a nausea reflex.
Additionally, you may be more prone to food poisoning because the less stomach acid you are producing, the less able you will be to sterilize the food stuffs in the stomach. Have you ever wondered why 2 people can eat the same dish, one gets sick and the other doesn’t. It may have had to do with stomach acid production.
Some of the other symptoms that one may experience with low stomach acid include the following.
The Baking Soda Stomach Acid Test
Ingesting baking soda has been a natural remedy used for many years to help settle an upset stomach. Baking soda contains sodium bicarbonate which has hydroxide (OH-) ions that reduce acidity. Since reducing acidity can create more comfort in someone with acid reflux, baking soda developed this reputation.
There is a simple test you can do at your home in order to see if you have enough stomach acid. This involves drinking baking soda in order to create a unique chemical reaction within your stomach. This reaction happens when the (OH-) ions of the baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and the hydrogen (H+) ions within the hydrochloric (stomach) acid (HCL). This should naturally result in carbon dioxide gas production and a resulting burping effect.
This test is virtually free (other than the cost of a ¼ tsp of baking soda) so there is nothing to lose. I recommend doing this test because it is safe and has no cost and it can be done very easily.
However, the test isn’t without its flaws. There are many variables that go uncontrolled for in this experiment. To minimize extraneous variables, I recommend performing the test on 3 consecutive mornings in order to find an overall average.
With this method, you are looking for a pattern of results rather than a one-time “yes” or “no.” Also, to improve the accuracy it is important to do the test first thing in the morning before eating or drinking anything else.
There are no scientific studies that discuss this method as either reliable or unreliable. The results of the test can vary widely depending upon the individual so it is up to your interpretation from what you are experiencing with this. Here is how you do the test:
Early and repeated belching may be due to excessive stomach acid (but don’t confuse these with small little burps from swallowing air when drinking the solution). Any belching after 3 minutes is an indication of low stomach acid production.
The Betaine HCL Challenge Test:
This is a very reliable test you can perform if you have the symptoms above and failed the Baking soda test. It will cost you a bottle of Betaine HCL ($20), which you will probably need anyways if to help you restore HCL levels if they truly are low.
To Perform the Test do the Following:
1Buy some Betaine HCL with pepsin
2Eat a high protein meal of at least 6 ounces of meat (you can have veggies too)
3In the middle of the meal (never in the beginning) take 1 Betaine HCL pill
4Finish the meal and observe what you notice.
1 You Don’t Notice Anything: If you do not notice any difference than it is most likely you have low stomach acid levels.
2 You Notice Indigestion: If you notice a burning, hotness or heaviness in your chest than these are signs you have adequate stomach acid levels.
It is best to do this test 2-3 times in order to make sure you aren’t getting a false positive. There are 3 main reasons for someone getting a possible false positive.
1 Didn’t Consume Enough Protein: If it is a relatively low protein meal, you won’t need much HCL and therefore the supplement can cause too much of an increase.
2 Took the Capsule Before the Meal: This will almost always cause indigestion as your body isn’t ready for the supplement.
3 Have Esophageal Sphincter Dysfunction: For some individuals, they may have a hiatal hernia or poor contractile activity of the esophogeal sphincter that can cause an increase in indigestion like symptoms. It is always good to get a medical exam to rule these things out before doing the test if possible.
After getting 2-3 positive tests in a row, begin using the HCL supplement with the protocol I give at the bottom of this article along with the 10 ways to improve your stomach acid levels.
10 Ways to Improve Stomach Acid Levels:
These are tips to help improve your digestion if you have lower stomach acid levels. By following these strategies, you reduce stress on your digestive system and absorb nutrients more effectively. This will help your body to have the resources it needs to produce adequate stomach acid in the future. When you improve stomach acid levels, it makes a huge difference on your overall health and quality of life!
1Use Liquid Nutrition Throughout the Day: You should make at least half of your meals in a liquid form such as a protein shake or green smoothie. Protein shakes are pre-metabolized and very easy to digest and do not depend upon HCL production. If you have low HCL it is wise to have 1-2 protein shakes each day to enhance amino acid absorption and reduce stress on the GI system. This is very important to improve stomach acid levels.
2Use Ginger: Ginger is one of the best things for improving digestive juices. Ginger is part of a group of herbs called carminatives along with peppermint, anise, cardamom, coriander, etc. I recommend drinking 2-3 cups of ginger tea each day, you can put ginger essential oil in water (2-3 drops in 8oz of water), juice a ½ inch of fresh ginger root in a green juice each day and use ground ginger on your foods. You can also consume fermented ginger which is common in Asian dishes such as kimchi.
3Super Hydrate Outside of Meal Times: I am a HUGE advocate of optimal hydration and it is especially important if you have low stomach acid. Good hydration will help activate bowel motility and push contents through the digestive system which will reduce microbial fermentation and toxicity in the body.
4Drink Very Little With Meat Containing Meals: Anytime you are going to have meat or any sort of heavier food (not a smoothie or a veggie salad), you should cut off drinking water at least 30 minutes before the meal other than perhaps 2oz for taking a supplement. This will reduce any potential dilution of the gastric juices and allow for better digestion.
5Hold Off On Water After a Meal: To allow for optimal digestion, I recommend abstaining from water or liquids until at least 30 minutes after a meal. This allows for proper stomach acid activity, sterilization, protein metabolism, etc.
6Use Lemon and Apple Cider Vinegar: Squeezing fresh lemon or using lemon juice or apple cider vinegar on your meat and veggies helps to pre-metabolize the food. This allows for better digestion and nutrient absorption. You can either marinate foods in a lemon or ACV base or just add them as a dressing right before you consume them.
7Eat Protein Foods at the Beginning of the Meal: The stomach will begin churning out its stomach acid when you begin eating, especially when you are consuming protein. It is very common for people to eat a salad before their protein dish, but this doesn’t work well for your HCL production. It is a much better idea to eat your protein with the salad or veggies.
8Use Fermented Veggies: Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, pickled ginger, etc. all contain organic acids, enzymes and probiotics which help to improve digestive juice secretions. I recommend using one of these with all of your heavier meals and especially any meal with protein.
9Use Fermented Drinks: Fermented drinks such as ACV, coconut water kefir and lemon water (not fermented) contain organic acids that have an anti-microbial effect. So these help to reduce the bacterial load, especially the bacteria in the stomach such as H Pylori. Keeping H Pylori levels down is important for the body to be able to produce enough stomach acid.
10Eat Your Largest Meal When You Are Most Relaxed: In order to produce adequate stomach acid, your body needs to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. If you are busy and on the go, you will be in fight or flight sympathetic mode. If you struggle with low stomach acid, this is not going to allow you to produce anywhere near enough. Relaxing before the meal is key to improve stomach acid production.
Use liquid and raw food nutrition such as smoothies, shakes and light salads during your busier periods because these foods don’t depend upon much HCL production. Plan your meat containing meal(s) for times when you can be relaxed at least 30 minutes before the meal and 1-2 hours after the meal.
If you are eating meat at a more stressful time period, try taking a few deep breaths before you begin consuming your meal to help relax your body and pull you out of fight or flight.
Supplementing With Hydrochloric Acid:
One of the most important supplements I have ever worked with is supplemental hydrochloric acid. I have seen this make a huge difference in so many people’s lives. This is a betaine HCL tablets. You should find them in dosage ranges of 300-500mg per capsule and in combination with 100-200 mg of Pepsin per capsule.
There are 2 protocols I use with my clients. One is for those who have acid reflux on a regular basis while the other is for those who rarely (once a month or less) or never experience acid reflux.
Always take the Betaine HCL either half-way through the meal or right at the end of the meal. Never take it before the meal or you may get a faulty experience of heartburn and you will turn off your natural stomach acid production for this meal. Additionally, if you are taking any sort of NSAID medication such as ibuprofen, tylenol or aspirin than do not take HCL.
If You Don’t Suffer From Acid Reflux:
Take 1 capsule during or after the meal (never before the meal) and see if you notice a mild burning sensation in your stomach, chest area. This is a mild experience of indigestion or hearburn. When you notice this with 1 cap of HCL, it is a sign you are producing enough HCL. If not, you are not producing enough HCL. At your next meal, try taking 2 caps and continue this until you find how much it takes to induce the indigestion/hearburn.
If You Suffer From Acid Reflux:
Do not take any ant-acids or acid reflux meds
Take 1 capsule during or directly after the meal (never before the meal) and see if you do not have the indigestion. If you continue to have the indigestion, you need more.
At your next meal, take 2 caps and continue this process until you find the amount you need in order to not have indigestion. Continue to use this amount until you notice you have indigestion again. When you do, drop your dosage by 1 cap for your next meal.
So if 4 caps took away your indigestion than stay on that until you noticed that 4 caps now CAUSED indigestion. Than drop your dosage to 3 caps until you notice that that amount causes indigestion. When you notice indigestion at 3 caps, drop it to 2 and continue with this until you plateau or are able to completely eliminate the usage of the HCL caps.
Do I Need to Take Betaine HCL For Life?
This is the most common question I get from my clients after they see the remarkable results they get from optimizing their stomach acid and using the Betaine HCL caps. Because stomach acid is something our body naturally should produce, this is a very valid question and concern.
The answer is maybe. Individuals who are younger and healthier can absolutely regain near optimal HCL production and maintain that throughout life with the right plan. Older individuals or those who have suffered with chronic health problems for a longer time may need extra stomach acid support for life.
Either way, your life will be much better by taking the HCL supplements you need so you can optimize your digestion than avoiding them or using them marginally. Fortunately, they are one of the most inexpensive supplements you can find on the market.
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