There is a good chance your digestion sucks. Mine did for a long time but I thought it was normal. People have come to believe that issues like indigestion, heartburn, upset stomach, gas, or bloating are normal, and they they have become a part of our baseline. If you experience any of these issues regularly, it is a sign that your digestion needs to improve.
Many of these issues come from having low stomach acid. That’s right, your heartburn, bloating, and indigestion may be from low, not high, stomach acid. This article will talk specifically about stomach acid: how it functions, what can lower it, why you should care, what not to do, and what we can do to improve it.
How Does Your Stomach Work?
Hydrochloric Acid (HCl) is what your body uses to break down food. It has a very low pH, and the reason that this acidic substance doesn’t burn through your stomach wall every time you eat is because your body produces a layer of mucous around your stomach for protection.1
Chewing your food sends a signal to your body that you are eating, and when you eat, your stomach pumps out HCI to help break down food. Not chewing your food properly can cause a lack of HCI production. Having enough HCl is also important because it activates pepsinogen to pepsin, an enzyme that break down proteins. Without enough pepsin it becomes difficult to breakdown protein.1 This can mean lower recovery times and increased probability of developing allergies/sensitivities.
What Can Lower Your Stomach Acid?
Stress has a big impact on your digestion. When you are stressed, you are pushed in to the ‘fight or flight’ mode, which pushes blood to your muscles, brain, heart, and lungs and away from your digestive system. This is great if you’re going to WOD or run from a bear, but not if you just ate lunch. Conversely, the ‘rest and digest’ mode allows you to break down your food properly.2
As mentioned above, the layer of mucous around the inside of your stomach protects it from the acid that can burn through and cause serious issues. Your body is smart and knows that if you are unable to produce enough mucous, you won’t produce enough HCI to burn through your stomach’s lining 3 Having low levels of zinc can inhibit your body’s ability to produce the protective mucosal layer for the stomach.4 Zinc also tends to decrease with age.1
Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) overgrowth has been shown to decrease the production of stomach acid and cause stomach issues, including ulcers.5 It is estimated 50 percent of the population has this bacteria, but most people do not get sick from it.1 If you think you have H. pylori, see a trained professional who can help.
Why Should You Care?
If you like feeling good and not having digestive issues then you should definitely care. Also, having enough stomach acid helps you do a lot of good things:
- Break down proteins
- Ionize minerals for absorption
- Defend against parasites, food poisoning, fungi, and other infections
- Stimulate the release of bile and pancreatic enzymes
- Help prevent the development of allergies
Use this test to see if your digestive issues are being caused by low or high stomach acid. Take 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with a little water (3oz) before you eat a meal. Warning: this will not be fun going down. If your digestion issues improve then it is low stomach acid. If they get worse or nothing changes then it is too much or something else.
Here are some of the issues associated with low stomach acidity:2
- Addison’s disease
- Autoimmune disorders
- Celiac disease
- Dermatitis herpetiformis
- Gallbladder disease
- Graves’ disease
- Hives (chronic)
- Hyper and hypothyroidism
- Pernicious anemia
- Rheumatoid arthritis
What to Do if Your Stomach Acid Is Low
Do not take antacids (i.e., Tums), other over-the-counter medications, or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) if you have low stomach acid. Taking Tums (which is basically chalk), Zantec, or PPIs lowers the acidity of your stomach or prevents stomach acid from being produced. If your issues are being caused by low stomach acid and you continue to lower it, then serious issues and diseases can develop.
Lower your stress levels by deep breathing, integrating a daily meditation practice, taking time to yourself, and exercising. It also helps to destress when you eat, so avoid working while you eat or eating on the run, as both of these things impair your ability to relax and digest your food properly. Take five deep belly breathes before each meal to help lower stress and bring you back to ‘rest and digest’ mode.
Increase your zinc levels. If you are low on zinc you won’t produce enough stomach acid. Some of the tell-tale symptoms of low zinc are white spots on your fingernails (they will look like little spray paint dots, lines are typically caused by bashing your hand on something), loss of taste, loss of appetite, and poor wound healing. Make sure to work with a knowledgeable practitioner before you supplement with zinc.
Take bitters. Bitters are bitter herbs distilled into grain alcohol to create a bitter tincture. These are different from the bitters you use to make drinks taste good like Angostura. The bitter taste of the tincture helps to stimulate digestive juices like HCl and enzymes.5 Once again, best to consult with a knowledgeable practitioner.
Rest and digest with yoga for gut health:
Elizabeth Lipski. Digestive Wellness. 2012. McGraw-Hill.
Michael Murray and Joseph Pizzorno. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. 2012. Atria.
Wong S.H, Cho C.H, Ogle C.W. “Protection by Zinc Sulphate against Ethanol Induced Ulceration: Preservation of the Gastric Mucosal Barrier,” Pharmacology 33(1986):94-102.
Oner G, et al. “The Role of Zinc Ion in the development of gastric ulcers in rats,” European Journal of Pharmacology 70(1981):241-243.
Patrick Holford. The Optimum Nutrition Bible. 2013. Piatkus