Heartburn & Acid Reflux
Just the words stomach acid make some people cringe. It's a crazy thing really, about the same strength as battery acid and just existing inside of us, like it's no big deal. Isn't the human body wild? The truth is, we wouldn't be able to digest at all without it. Hydrochloric acid, referred to as HCl, is produced in the stomach by the parietal cells that lie deep in the stomach walls.
Stomach Acid: Our Friend
So what does stomach acid do? It helps neutralize harmful microorganisms that are in contaminated food. It acts as a trigger for the other crucial players in digestion: pancreatic juices, hormones and bile. It activates extremely powerful digestive enzymes that break down protein structures so our body can utilize them in their most basic building block form: amino acids. It ionizes minerals which are vital for our health. How is that something as acidic as HCl doesn't burn through the stomach? Our stomach wall is lined with an alkaline mucous that protects it.
Sometimes people do have high levels of stomach acid, and it's important to treat that. But there's increasing awareness that GERD (Gastro-esophageal reflux disease), heartburn and acid reflux can very often be caused by low stomach acid, and will have similar symptoms as high stomach acid. Confusing, right? When you have low levels of stomach acid, food will sit in your stomach longer than it should, not digesting properly. It can be forced back up into your esophageal sphincter, creating a burning sensation very similar to acid reflux. When people have these symptoms, they often take over the counter antacids, such as Tums, to alleviate the burning. Those with chronic issues, such as GERD, stomach ulcers or Barrett's Esophagus, may have prescriptions for Prilosec or Prevacid, both known as 'proton pump inhibitors.' Proton pump inhibitors (PPI's) decrease the amount of stomach acid, which is extremely important in people suffering from excessive levels. However, in cases of low levels of stomach acid the neutralizing of acid will make a bad problem worse, causing a vicious cycle of digestive problems. Insufficient HCl can cause malabsorption of vitamins and minerals, hinder digestion, contribute to food allergies and more.
The important thing to remember here is that low stomach acid is often the starting place of other digestive problems, and it can often mimic high stomach acid symptoms. Hypochlorhydria is the term used for low stomach acid, which is most often brought on by stress, poor diet, bacterial infections, antacid abuse, proton pump inhibitors, and nutrient deficiencies. Inadequate stomach acid translates to inadequate digestion of proteins, which will lead to a host of problems, including the inability to create essential enzymes and hormones, and the inability for the body to repair and rebuild. We need the acidic environment in our stomach in order to ionize minerals - which are crucial co-factors for chemical reactions happening in our bodies at all times.
Symptoms of low stomach acid:
- Extreme fullness after meals
- Heartburn/burning sensation
- Gas, flatulence after meals
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Aging due to malabsorption
- Food allergies/sensitivities
- Food allergies/sensitivities
- Skin problems
- Weak nails
- Eating too much, too quickly
- Excess alcohol
- H. pylori infection
- Hiatal hernia
- Zinc deficiency (required for HCl production)
- Low stomach acid
- Relaxation of esophageal sphincter
Before you can do anything, you have to determine if you have high or low stomach acid. If you are in chronic pain, it's important you see your doctor, as chronic heartburn may be an indicator of more serious problems, such as Barrrett's Esophagus and other pre-malignant conditions. To determine if you have hypochlorhydria or hyperchlorhydria, you can contact your doctor and see if he or she will administer a Heidelburg Capsule test, which is a small device you swallow that tracks acid levels in the stomach. Some doctors may give you an endoscopy.
Before self-diagnosing and treating with antacids, or taking a medication like Prilosec, I suggest you do some work with a licensed health practitioner who can guide you through some simple tests you can do at home that can help assess if you have low or high stomach acid. The quiz at the bottom of this page is helpful as well. Your symptoms may be your body's way of telling you to change up your diet and heal the damage done. In most cases you can do this by making simple dietary changes and giving your body the fuel it needs to independently function on its own again.
You'll need to change your diet and avoid certain foods, some for a long time and some you may be able to reintroduce. An alkaline diet, packed with vegetables, will help your symptoms. Make your meals smaller and you may notice immediate improvement. Fried foods, fatty proteins, coffee and caffeine have an acidic PH and will severely exacerbate high or low stomach acid. You can support repairing your digestive system with herbs, supplemental HCl, vitamins and minerals. Consult with a nutritionist or health specialist on the best way to do this, and check out my healing page for further ideas.