We’re all familiar with the bloating, gas, GERD, acid reflux, and heartburn caused by excess stomach acid. And we’re bombarded with commercials and ad space touting antacids that we can buy, even in places like gas stations, if needed. That “acid” referred to is actually hydrochloric acid and our stomachs require it to properly digest food. If our stomach is too acidic, it can’t digest protein properly, we won’t be able to access the nutrients our food provides, and neither will it trigger the other enzymatic processes necessary for digestion. Hydrochloric acid also eliminates viruses and harmful bacteria in the stomach. But what happens if we don’t have enough stomach acid? Well, here’s your answer: the same thing!
The pH in our stomachs needs to maintain a delicate balance of between 1.5 – 3 to properly digest foods. It may come as a surprise, but most people who suffer from heartburn actually have too little acid in their digestive tract, an underreported disease called hypochlorhydria. Unfortunately, most doctors who prescribe antacids for complaints of heartburn, gas, bloating, and all the previously mentioned stomach issues, don’t test for stomach acidity levels. And when tested, it’s rare that the levels come back as too high. For this reason, hypochlorhydria may be one of the most underdiagnosed diseases.
Since people over 65 are more susceptible to hypochlorhydria than their younger counterparts, it’s a good idea to recognize the warning signs. Some mimic the same symptoms one would experience with excess acid:
- Gas, especially after meals
- Abdominal tightness
- Heartburn, indigestion
- Undigested food in stools
- Abdominal cramping
- Foul smelling gas
- Halitosis, bad breath
- Adrenal fatigue
- Weak, cracked, or peeling fingernails
Diet as medicine
Individuals with hypochlorhydria may also suffer from pancreatic enzyme deficiencies, putrefying gut bacteria, and bile insufficiencies. Stress can also be placed upon the kidneys and liver as well as excess nitrogen in the blood. There is also a link among these that can be corrected with proper diet and proper testing by your doctor as well as specific enzyme supplementation. Here are some simple diet tips:
1. Decrease any processed foods including refined flour and sugar. Your body is already struggling to extrude nutrients and these foods will only deplete you more. Anything white, like white rice, flour, sugar, is empty calories and system depleting.
2. Increase use of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. When raw, they do provide enzyme activity that is helpful but in some cases it can increase GI irritation. Consult your doctor first.
3. Consume apple cider vinegar, about a teaspoon with water before each meal. It will aid in maintaining the long-term pH of your stomach, too.
It’s important not to begin taking antacids until you know for sure whether your stomach acid is making too much or too little acid because taking an antacid will only diminish your store of hydrochloric acid even more. Hypochlorhydria can be assessed indirectly via laboratory factors like blood chemistry, Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis (HTMA), and tests to measure your acid levels. So, ask your doctor for testing and eat right!
1. A Functional Medicine Approach to Low Stomach Acid. Dr. Corey Priest.
2. What Is Hypochlorhydria?. Megan Dix, RN-BSN. Healthline.