It’s time to stop the pervasive and often incorrect notion that heartburn means that you have too much stomach acid. What’s more common is having low stomach acid!
And though it might surprise you — the symptoms of both high and low stomach acid are virtually identical.
Big pharma would love for you to think that you just need these drugs all of the time. And doctors have been happy to overprescribe GERD medications as if they were candy.
The types of drugs that I’m specifically talking about here are proton-pump inhibitors (otherwise known as PPIs), H2-blockers, and even antacids.
There may be some instances where they are necessary and their use is warranted. For example, doctors may use them as part of a protocol to treat H.pylori.
[Here’s the relationship between H.pylori and your mouth microbiome!]
But generally speaking, most cases of heartburn don’t require LESS stomach acid because their levels are already low.
What makes me even more concerned is that they’ll tell you that they are safe to take forever.
That’s not true at all!
These medications aren’t supposed to be used beyond a six week period.
So let’s talk about what stomach acid is, what purpose it serves, what are the consequences of low stomach acid, and how you test your level of stomach acid at home for free!
Stomach Acid 101
Stomach acid is more technically known as Hydrochloric Acid (also HCl for short!).
To understand why having enough stomach acid is even remotely important means you have to know what it does in the first place.
It might surprise you to know that its job extends beyond just helping you break food down!
Stomach acid is made by your parietal cells in the stomach as the second step to the digestive process. (Chewing is actually the first!)
The stomach itself must be very acidic (around 1.5 pH) in order to be effective! (1)
Initially, stomach acid will help break proteins down even further while activating proteases (protein enzymes) to continue the process.
Stomach acid also works hand in hand with intrinsic factor (also made by the parietal cells of the stomach) to improve vitamin B12 absorption.
Lastly, a lot of people don’t realize that the acidity of the stomach thanks to appropriate levels of stomach acid make it a chemical barrier!
Pathogens are microscopic and so everything you swallow, from the flora in your mouth to bad bugs that can make you sick, is a potential problem for your GI tract.
Stomach acid helps prevent small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and gut infections from taking root by killing whatever is coming through the stomach.
To be fair, it is possible to have too much stomach acid, but it’s not nearly as common as having low stomach acid.
That’s why it is worthwhile to do a low stomach acid test to see what’s going on! (Keep reading for instructions!)
There are some physiologic reasons that your body can experience heartburn symptoms. For example, a hiatal hernia can cause stomach acid to move up the esophagus. And functional issues with your lower esophageal sphincter that sits just above the stomach can also prevent your acid from staying in the stomach.
If you have or suspect either of these issues, it is best to speak with your doctor rather than handling them solely on your own.
Causes Of Low Stomach Acid
If you’re wondering how you ended up with low stomach acid, there are a number of reasons why.
Let’s talk about the three most common factors…
First of all, your overall stress burden is a major factor. This goes back to the notion that in order to properly digest and absorb food, you must be relaxed. However, the clients I work with are chronically stressed not just from life, but also a state of excessive stress within the body.
Past trauma (no matter how small) can also factor into the stress you feel. So don’t rule it out when it’s certainly a factor with a lot of research backing this up.
There are many different ways to deal with and manage stress.
One of my favorites is to start a breathing exercise practice that actually tells your brain that you are safe. Here are the three breathing practices I recommend to clients (that include quick video tutorials)!
Another factor that can cause low stomach acid is directly related to autoimmunity.
Since it’s possible to develop an immune reaction to any tissue in your body, the parietal cells are no different. In this case, the resulting damage would cause a drop in stomach acid and intrinsic factor as the cells are destroyed.
This underscores why it’s important to identify autoimmunity in the first place! Then you have to pinpoint the triggers that push the autoimmune process forward. Especially since having one autoimmune disease increases your likelihood of developing more. (2)
Lastly, stomach acid production naturally decreases as you age. Around age 65, research has found that not only will your stomach produce less acid as well as proteases (those important enzymes to break down protein). (3)
Regardless of the exact reason why your stomach acid level has dropped, it’s imperative to get it back up to a safe level especially before each meal.
Consequences Of Low Stomach Acid
The reality is that having low stomach acid DOES matter.
Here are seven ways that low stomach acid production screws with your health:
- Prevents pH dependent enzymatic activation. Basically, digestive enzymes require a certain pH in order to activate. If the stomach environment isn’t acidic enough, the enzymes in the stomach won’t do their job leaving proteins too large headed downstream.
- Low vitamin B12. Unless you’re taking “megadoses” of vitamin B12, you absolutely need your stomach acid to separate this critical vitamin from the proteins it’s bound to in food.
- Low bone density. Because your bones require many minerals to keep them healthy, those minerals must be separated with stomach acid from food otherwise, they are lost.
- Feeding bad gut bugs. When food proteins are appropriately broken down, they head downstream in the gut and end up as food for unfriendly gut flora. Not only does this shift your microbiome in an unhealthy way, but the waste products of those bacteria are inflammatory to both your gut, liver, and skin.
- More belly bloating. Add to this unpleasant symptom — gas, belching, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, and constipation. All thanks to low stomach acid!
- Skin rashes galore. Though this is not the end-all-be-all of reasons behind chronic skin rashes, it is a very important piece. 95% of all my chronic skin rash clients have low stomach acid which perpetuates inflammation that shows up in the skin.
More food sensitivities. If your gut is inflamed and leaky, partially undigested food proteins can sneak through gut junctions and trigger an immune response. This causes even more inflammation.
Just from this list, you can see why it’s critical to check your stomach acid level.
Here’s how you can test your stomach acid without heading to the doctor!
At Home DIY Low Stomach Acid Test
If you want to test your own stomach acid level, there’s a really easy, at-home stomach acid test you can do that’s virtually free.
I’d recommend doing this test even if heartburn isn’t one of your GI symptoms.
I ask all of my gut and chronic skin rash clients to do this because it helps us see what’s going on with the process of digestion.
Chronic skin rash issues are typically tied to ongoing gut dysfunction, so that’s why it’s so important to check for low stomach acid.
In case you’re thinking “But Jen, I don’t have any issues with heartburn!”
Very few of my clients have heartburn.
But the majority of them discover that they have low stomach acid which triggers bigger problems further down the gut pipeline.
Here’s the exact test they do in their own home to find out if they have low stomach acid:
>>> CLICK HERE TO GET THE LOW STOMACH ACID TEST EGUIDE
The handout will walk you through the exact steps to take and help you determine whether you have enough stomach acid.
DIY Tips To Increase Stomach Acid Naturally
Got low stomach acid?
Here are some simple steps to try increasing stomach acid on your own:
- Slow the heck down! Sitting down and spending time smelling and appreciating your food before eating since it should stimulate stomach acid secretion. (PS. Sitting down does not mean it’s okay to eat in the car.)
- Chew your food. Barely chewing because you’re eating on the go is a huge no-no. Remember… you don’t have teeth in your stomach. Chewing your food means that appropriate sized food bits can be more efficiently broken down further down the line.
- Reduce your stress. When your body is on alert and constantly in flight or fight mode, digestion and absorption of food are deprioritized.
- Clean up your diet. Heartburn symptoms may be a way of telling you that it’s time to ditch the junk food.
- Pre-game meal time with acids. Taking a shot’s worth of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice may help stimulate stomach acid before each meal.
For what it’s worth, I know that there are a lot of people recommending celery juice as a way to increase stomach acid.
No matter how much research I did, there’s absolutely no science to back it up. I searched Pubmed and to date, there is nothing. It’s not to say that this is completely incorrect, but there is no data yet that supports this idea.
Best Supplement To Increase Stomach Acid
I imagine that if you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’ve got a lot of gut issues and symptoms.
In this case, a supplement that contains Betaine HCl will do the trick. I’ve found the compliance and results in clients to be so much better than trying to increase stomach acid with food acids alone.
BUT, I do not use Betaine HCl alone.
Instead, I’ve found that combo formulas that include Betaine HCl along with the three types of digestive enzymes and bile support are best and most efficient.
They optimize carb, protein, and fat digestion and absorption to keep partially undigested nutrients away from unfriendly gut flora so that you benefit the most from the food you eat.
I typically recommend Digest Aid to clients (it’s a professional-grade supplement) that you take 5 minutes before eating a meal. You do not need to take this before eating snacks… only meals.
What’s nice here is that the formula is complete and you only need to take ONE capsule. Other formulas require taking multiple pills which I’m not a fan of.
Just in case there’s any confusion in your mind, digestive enzymes on their own will not correct low stomach acid.
Share below what your experience has been with your stomach acid and if you’ve ever used any sort of Betaine HCl or digestive enzyme supplements before to optimize your digestion!
REFERENCES FOR DIY LOW STOMACH ACID TEST
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Thank you, Jennifer, for all of the helpful information that you share. 🙂
Thanks for this information. I live in Australia and it’s expensive to ship that product. Is a product with betaine, pepsin and pancreatin sufficient? Or are there ingredients in the product you recommend that are necessary?
We also live in Australia can you advise of the above query 😊
It’s important when you have digestive dysfunction that you find a product that’s balanced. If you have low acid (and you do not have ulcerations), having betaine HCl is important. You also may need enzymes — pepsin is a protein enzyme that’s predominantly found in the stomach. Pancreatin — make sure that it’s offering a balance of the 3 major enzyme groups –> lipase (fats), protease (protein), and amylase (carbs). Gall bladder support in the form of bile acids or salts may be necessary as well.
Look around and see if someone in your area sells a balanced product. NOW Foods has some options (though if you’re sensitive to mold, it contains a form of mold-derived enzyme) and they’re widely offered. There are plenty of products available in other countries that would meet your needs, but you’ve got to look around and see what you can purchase.
I hope this is helpful. I wish there was this really cut and dry answer, but everyone’s situation is different and so if you’re sorting this out yourself, you have to consider what’s going on with you before choosing a product.