Yep, you read that right.  More stomach acid, not less.

Acid Reflux, GERD, Heartburn… are unfortunately very common in our Western society.  It seems obvious:  if I can FEEL my stomach acid burning me, I must have too much.  However, this is almost always wrong!

Symptoms of Low Stomach Acid Include:

  • heartburn
  • frequent burping after eating
  • gas after eating
  • heavy, “lead stomach” feeling after eating
  • stomach is easily upset
  • bloating
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • chronic intestinal infections
  • chronic candida infection
  • undigested food in stools
  • food sensitivities
  • general indigestion

Fairly typically individuals experiencing these symptoms will look to an acid-lowering medication to alleviate their symptoms.  Regrettably, in most cases, this is further stressing the root cause… low stomach acid.

Why is stomach acid important?

  • Stomach acid helps kill bacteria and parasites that are ingested with food.  This is of critical importance to immune health.
  • Stomach acid helps reduce food clumps into a more liquid state (chyme), promoting more effective digestion and absorption in the intestines.  (This does not take the place of adequate chewing.)
  • Stomach acid activates the enzyme pepsin, which allows for proper protein digestion, along
    with activating many other enzymes, hormones and even neurotransmitters.
  • Stomach acid stimulates peristalsis, the rhythmic contractions that move food through your
    digestive tract.
  • Stomach acid lets the pancreas know to prepare to release enzymes into the duodenum of
    the small intestine, to further break down food.
  • Stomach acid is essential for the absorption of minerals including Calcium, Iron, Zinc and
    Magnesium; and vitamins including Vitamins A, C, E, B12 and Folic Acid.

digestive system

In an ideal digestive system:

1) Food is chewed thoroughly. 

This mechanical action of grinding food between your teeth is important to reduce the size of food particles.  It also allows time for saliva to adequately mix with your food to begin the digestive process…right there in your mouth!

2) Food is swallowed and travels through the esophagus to the stomach.
When food enters, your stomach gets straight to its job:  secreting hydrochloric acid, proteases and churning food.  Proteases are enzymes that break down protein; they are activated in a pH lower than 2, which is achieved with adequate amounts of hydrochloric acid.  This begins the denaturing of proteins which will allow for absorption of amino acids further down the digestive tract.  The mush of hydrochloric acid, enzymes and denatured food is called chyme.  A healthy stomach, with no ulcers present, is protected from the strong acid and chyme by a thick layer of mucous, meaning you don’t FEEL the acid in your stomach.

3) The pyloric sphincter opens and allows food into the small intestine.
Once the pH of the chyme is lowered to 2 or less, the pyloric sphincter, separating the stomach from the duodenum of the small intestine, will open to allow food to pass into the small intestine.  The pyloric sphincter prefers not to open until food is adequately acidic, to ensure that any pathogens like bacteria or parasites are killed, preventing infection.  Further digestion, as well as the majority of absorption will occur within the small intestine.

How is it possible for too little acid to FEEL like too much?
ph scale

When food sits in the stomach too long, without the pyloric sphincter allowing it to empty, the pressure from fermenting food and stomach churning causes the acidic chyme to push back up through the esophageal sphincter at the top of the stomach.  Your esophagus is a naturally alkaline environment, with a pH around or just above 7.  So, even if your stomach has a relatively weak acid content and a pH around 4, for example, when it splashes back up into the esophagus it FEELS acidic (heartburn!).
Instead of lowering stomach pH further, by medications or home-remedies like a glass of milk, causing food to sit in the stomach EVEN LONGER… you can increase the acid level in your stomach allowing it to digest andempty more efficiently.

How to Naturally Increase Stomach Acid Levels and Ensure Efficient Digestion:

1) Chew your food!  Your stomach doesn’t have teeth!

Digestion starts in your mouth in a couple of ways.

Firstly, chewing your food is the only opportunity your body has to mechanically break down your food.  Your stomach cannot chew, your intestines cannot chew… only your mouth and teeth can do that.  So, do it well.

Secondly, as you’re chewing, glands in your mouth release salivary amylase; this is a type of enzyme that begins the digestion of starches and sugars.  Further amylase is not secreted until your food reaches the small intestine and your pancreas pumps out more enzymes.  Give your pancreas a bit of a break and allow salivary enzymes to mix with your food as you chew it thoroughly, kicking off the digestion process.

What does chewing food thoroughly mean?  Think of an apple.  By the time you swallow the apple…the peel should be indistinguishable from the flesh.

2) Practice Proper Food Combining

Starches and sugars are digested mainly in the mouth and intestines, meaning they don’t need to sit in the stomach for very long.  Proteins and fats on the other hand, require longer wait times in the stomach, up to 4 or 5 hours in some cases.
If we think about the typical North American “dream-meal”:  a steak dinner with a side of mashed potatoes and a sweet dessert to finish it off… this is not proper food combining. (Plus where are the veggies…?)

The steak will need to sit in the stomach for 3-5 hours in order to be properly digested (assuming you chewed thoroughly), while both the starchy mashed potatoes and sugary dessert were already mostly digested in your mouth.  What this means is that the steak sits in the bottom of your stomach until it is ready to pass to the next step of digestion, while the starches and sugars sit on top waiting impatiently to exit.  The sugars sitting on top of the steak will begin to ferment it, causing bloating and expansion in the stomach and potentially causing indigestion and heartburn as mentioned above.
Instead, eat the quickest digesting foods first.  If you want a sweet treat with dinner, eat it at the start of your meal.  Then eat your salad or starch, and finally, your protein and fat foods.  This will allow your meal to leave your stomach more quickly, reducing the amount of time the food has to begin fermenting.  Even better, give up refined sweets and starches altogether.

3) Introduce Natural Digestive Aids

Lemon Juice or Apple Cider Vinegar
Both lemon juice and apple cider vinegar are naturally acidic, and can help give a boost to your stomach acid, decreasing your food’s time in your stomach and therefore potentially preventing heartburn and reflux.  Ideally take between 1 teaspoon and 1 Tablespoon approximately 15 minutes before your meal.

Digestive Bitters
Generally taken about 15 minutes before your meal as well; the bitter flavour stimulates digestion and gets your system primed for the food about to enter.  These tinctures are readily available in dropper form, with dosages marked on the label.

4) Rest and Digest

Your body has two modes of operating.  Fight or flight, we’ve all heard of.  This occurs when we are stressed.  Your body shunts blood and other resources away from your digestive system and into your muscles allowing you to either:  fight your stressor with all your might, or run from it as fast as you can.  This makes sense from an evolutionary stand point… If you are running from a tiger should your body really care about efficient digestion? Likely not.

The other operating mode is Rest and Digest.  When we are calm and relaxed our body uses more resources in the proper and efficient digestion of food and absorption of nutrients.

So, before you begin eating take three big belly breaths to help shift your body into Rest and Digest mode.  Try to eat in a relaxed environment, not while working, driving or rushing.
Complaints about heartburn and reflux are among the most common we hear.
Have you experienced any of the symptoms above?  Have you tried any of the suggestions?
Let us know in the comments!

 

Image Credits:

1) http://www.medicalartlibrary.com/stomach-anatomy.html
2) http://www.collective-evolution.com

ABOUT THE EXPERT
Veronica Qubrossi

Veronica is a Holistic Nutritionist and Managing Director at Healthoholics, where she directs clinic operations, leads educational initiatives including our Holistic Weight Loss program, and manages our marketing efforts.