According to the author of Dr. Jonathan Wright, author of Why Stomach Acid is Good For You, more that 90% of Americans have inadequate levels of stomach acid. This condition is called hypochlorhydria.
Low stomach acid leads to a cascade of digestive problems further south in the digestion process, such as bloating, gas and constipation.
Why is it so important to heal low stomach acid? Let’s start with the all-to-common consequences of low stomach acid.
Consequences of hypochlorhydria
- Without adequate acid, we cannot properly break down proteins into amino acids. Lack of amino acids in the bloodstream means less available neurotransmitters which can mean mood disorders like depression. This poor protein digestion also leads to hair loss and brittle nails.
- Low stomach acid fosters imbalanced gut flora. Pathogenic and food borne bacteria, usually killed by the low stomach pH, can make their way into the intestines. Further, lack of acidity in the stomach makes it more hospitable to bacterial growth (and the stomach should be relatively sterile). Low stomach acid can pave the way for an H. Pylori infection.
- Hypochlorhydria leads to nutrient malabsorption. Specifically, when proteins aren’t fully broken down, B12 absorption is disrupted. Folate and nonheme iron absorption are also affected by low stomach acid.
- Inadequate stomach acid often means constipation, bloating, gas and belching. With inadequate acid, food sits in the stomach and putrefies instead of being properly digested.
- Leaky gut and therefore create food allergies can result. Improperly digested starches foster the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria lower in the small intestine. These opportunistic bugs cause the junctions between intestinal cells to loosen, creating a condition called leaky gut. Undigested proteins and other food particles escape into the bloodstream through these cell gaps. Then, food allergies develop as the body reacts by creating antibodies to these foreign particles in the blood.
Hypochlorhydria causes heartburn
Many people – thanks to Tums commercials – believe that heartburn and acid reflux are caused by too much stomach acid. In actuality, low stomach acid results in heartburn.
Here’s what happens:
- The Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES) separates the esophagus and the stomach. Proper stomach acid levels signal the LES to close tightly.
- With low stomach acid levels, the LES loosens and acidic stomach fluid escapes into the lower part of the esophagus causing a burning sensation. LES malfunction is also influenced by other variables like food allergies, overeating, and certain drugs.
- The pyloric sphincter separates the stomach from the small intestine. The body resists opening this sphincter, however, when the contents of the stomach are not properly acidified.
- The body innately knows the undigested food will cause problems further south. As a result, food sits in the stomach and putrefies, producing gas and pressure which makes the LES leak open.
- The result? A burning sensation from the stomach’s contents leaking into the esophagus.
Unfortunately, heartburn medications only create a vicious cycle by further reducing stomach acidity. In turn, this reduces nutrient absorption.
For long-term health, it is critical to support healthy levels of stomach acid.
How do we solve hypochlohydria?
As I just discussed, low stomach acid causes a host of digestive problems. But what is the underlying cause of hypochlohyria?
The vagal nerve.
When we smell food and sit down to our meal, our brain is supposed to send a signal to the digestive organs via the vagal nerve. This nerve connects to the brain stem and attaches to each digestive organ, including the stomach.
The vagal nerve is like a muscle – if your vagal nerve is weak, it can’t do the heavy lifting of turning on digestion. Yes, I’m calling a nerve a muscle, but stay with me through this analogy. It is the most accessible way to understand this concept. If you think of the vagal nerve as a muscle, it can have strong vagal tone (like a toned muscle) or weak vagal tone.
In summary, weak vagal tone means your brain can’t turn on stomach acid production. That leads me to my primary recommendation to address hypochlorhydria:
1. Eliminate foods to which you are sensitive
As I discussed, low stomach acid perpetuates food allergies and sensitivities by creating leaky gut. Then, when we eat the foods to which we are sensitive, the body responds with stress. That’s counterproductive, because stress turns off digestion.
It’s important to temporarily remove the foods to which you are sensitive, to allow healing.
Don’t have the time or finances for a complicated food allergy panel? I recommend using this method for At Home Food Sensitivity Testing. You simply measure how your pulse responds to eating specific foods.
2. Vitamin U for Low Stomach Acid
“Vitamin U?” You may be thinking, “I’ve heard of A, B, C, D, E, and K… but not U!” That’s because it’s not a real vitamin, just a label for a powerful healing enzyme found in cabbage. It is applauded for it’s anti-ulcer abilities and quickly cures stomach ulcers and heals the stomach lining. When stomach acid has been chronically low for years, the stomach lining may be inflamed and unable to tolerate acid supplementation. In this case, vitamin U is useful in soothing an inflamed stomach lining and correcting low stomach acid.
Many studies have been conducted where the participants drank raw cabbage juice and experienced quick ulcer healing. Large amounts of cabbage juice, however, can suppress thyroid activity due to the high amounts of goitrogens. So while a daily dose of raw cabbage juice may be a great option for some folks, others may find it both more suitable and more convenient to take a vitamin u supplement. I have had great success with Gastrazyme and I highly recommend it. 5 tablets before bed and 5 upon rising is a good place to start for a potent, short-term therapy.
3. Sea Salt
Eat plenty of unrefined sea salt with meals, such as Real Salt. This provides chloride, the building block of stomach acid (sodium chloride and hydrochloric acid).
4. Manuka Honey
We all have the bacteria H. pylori in our digestive tract, but this species becomes a problem when it overgrows. In a vicious cycle, H. pylori reproduces in the stomach in the presence of low stomach acid and then suppresses stomach acid production.
Manuka honey is produced in New Zealand and Australia from bees pollinating the manuka tree. It has a naturally occurring peroxide content which makes it a potent anti-bacterial agent. This therapeutic honey has been widely used to heal stomach lining and to help address h. pylori overgrowth. I took 1 tsp. of this honey twice a day when I was first healing my stomach lining.
Recently, I read from one source manuka honey should not be used internally because it has a naturally occurring genotoxin. I don’t know what to think about this, however, since so many people take manuka honey and experience only vastly positive results. You can weight the pros and cons for yourself.
Yemen Sidr honey also has the potent antibacterial properties of manuka honey without the genotoxic component. Also, regular RAW honey is less antibacterial than these two famous “powerhouse” honeys but it is still very useful in healing the stomach lining. Only purchase raw honey, preferably from a local beekeeper– never purchase regular supermarket honey.
5. Raw Apple Cider Vinegar
There are a few theories regarding just why apple cider vinegar improves digestion and low stomach acid. First, the vinegar is acidic and will slightly lower the pH in the stomach. Frequent doses of raw apple cider vinegar is also purportedly effective in correcting candida overgrowth, and candida problems can contribute to low stomach acid production. It is very effective as a quick solution when one is experiencing heartburn, perhaps because the acidity signals the LES to close tightly.
Upon waking, drink 1 tsp. raw apple cider vinegar (it must be raw) in 1/2 cup warm water. Take this concoction before each meal and, if needed, after meals to stop heartburn.
6. Avoid a diet high in grain fiber
Grain fiber contains large amounts of phytic acid, a compound which “locks” onto minerals like zinc, copper, iron and calcium. Processed grain products, such as bread and cereals, are not properly prepared and contain high amounts of phytic acid. Soaking and fermenting your grains, as practiced by traditional cultures and explained in Nourishing Traditions, reduces the phytic acid levels.
When stomach acid is optimal, the acid helps to break down the little phytic acid and mineral bundles, rendering some of those previously stolen minerals available to the body. But the body cannot reclaim these nutrients with low stomach acid. Reducing fiber and thereby reducing phytic acid intake, minerals are more efficiently absorbed. Read more here: Is a high fiber diet a health hazard? Worried about constipation if you reduce fiber? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered with 5 healthy steps to cure constipation naturally.
7. Don’t over-hydrate
Mainstream health dogma hounds us to drink 8+ glasses of water per day for “hydration” and to “flush toxins.” Actually, over hydrating does neither of things things and actually slows metabolism and can cause cellular dehydration (I discuss the topic in more detail HERE). In addition, drinking large amounts of water before or during meals waters down stomach acid and therefore inhibits digestion.
If desired, drink a cup of warm, homemade bone broth to stimulate digestive juices desired during meals. You may also find it helpful to drink 1/2 cup of water with 1 tsp. raw apple cider vinegar before or after meals. I also suggesting drinking a small amount of raw, homemade yogurt with meals to provide probiotics and enzymes to support digestion.
Are you on a journey to heal low stomach acid and correct digestion issues? Have you used any of these tips or supplements before?