You are what you digest! And if you have low stomach acid you won't be able to digest your food well. Stomach acid (aka hydrochloric acid) may not be something that you immediately associate with digestion, but your ability to produce sufficient levels is a crucial part of optimal digestion and immune function.
In this blog post, I cover why it’s important, the main symptoms of low hydrochloric acid (HCI), how to test using beetroot, as well as share tips on how to improve low stomach acid levels naturally.
The role of stomach acid in digestion
One of the most important substances involved in digestion is hydrochloric acid (HCI for short) or, in other words, your stomach acid. Without it, digestion and absorption of certain nutrients, especially protein wouldn’t be possible.
HCI helps prevent you from developing infections and food poisoning, and works to make sure you're absorbing iron and other nutrients for energy such as vitamin B12, zinc, calcium, magnesium and amino acids.
It also signals your other digestive organs to release their juices and enzymes as well as muscular contractions that make digestion smooth and easy.
For example, stomach acid is an important trigger for the contraction of your esophageal sphincter (just above the stomach) to protect the delicate tissue of your esophagus from the harsh acids in your stomach. It also helps to activate the pyloric sphincter which allows food to move from your stomach to your small intestine.
HCI doesn’t digest protein directly, but it activates an enzyme called pepsin, which breaks proteins down into amino acids that your body can absorb.
When HCI is released into your stomach, its pH should drop to a range of 1.5 to 2.5. Pepsin only activates in this acidic pH range, so if there isn’t enough stomach acid, the activation of pepsin, and the resulting protein digestion, is not possible.
The food and drinks you consume naturally contain microbes. However, these microbes like yeast and bacteria cannot survive in an acidic environment. Because of this, HCI plays a critical role in preventing these pathogens from causing an infection (1)
The release of HCI into the stomach also produces chemical signals that trigger other parts of digestion. The presence of stomach acid and the drop in pH that follows signal the pancreas to produce and release its digestive juices and enzymes.
HCI also triggers the muscle contractions of the intestines (aka peristalsis) that help breakdown and physically move the food and digested particles through the rest of your digestive tract.
The main symptoms of low stomach acid (aka hypochlorhydria)
- Heartburn, reflux or indigestion
- a feeling of fullness after eating, bloating and discomfort, which can lower your appetite
- irregular bowel movements and dysbiosis in the gut (an imbalance in your gut bacteria)
- new allergies or sensitivities to foods that you used to be able to tolerate
- Anemia or other nutrient deficiencies like B12 and folate
- chronic fatigue
- Dry skin and skin conditions, like acne, eczema, psoriasis, hives, or rosacea
- Low stomach acid can also co-exist with autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or celiac disease
How does my stomach acid get low?
Studies show that more than 30% of people over 60 years old experience little to no stomach acid secretion, and another study found that 40% of postmenopausal women produce no basal gastric acid (2).
So insufficient stomach acid levels are more common than you may think.
And here’s why - stomach acid declines with age but it can also lower due to stress, nail biting, gum chewing, and other habits that "trick" your body into thinking that food is on its way.
Poor diet, chronic use of antacids, antibiotics and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) will also deplete stomach acid, ultimately making symptoms worse. Chlorine and fluoride in drinking water can lower acid levels too.
How do I know if I have low stomach acid?
One easy way is to eat a beetroot, or drink some beet juice, and then check your urine.
If the colour of your urine is still yellow within a day of consumption, that means you probably have enough HCI. But if your urine or stools turn a pinkish or red colour, your HCI levels may be low.
The theory is that HCI plays a major role in breaking down the pigments in foods, so if there are still pigments left at the end of digestion, you may not have enough stomach acid. This beetroot test is purely a guide, when working with clients we determine low stomach acid based on symptoms and functional tests.
6 steps to naturally improve low stomach acid
Here’s 6 steps to help improve your digestion if you have lower stomach acid levels. By following these steps, you reduce stress on your digestive system and absorb nutrients more effectively.
This will help your body to have the resources it needs to produce adequate stomach acid in the future. When you improve stomach acid levels, it makes a huge difference to your overall health and quality of life.
1. Drink lemon water
There is some evidence that lemon juice can help stimulate proper stomach acid production and bile production. For a happy liver and lymph system, make a habit of drinking lemon water before having any other drinks that day.
Drink a large glass of warm or room temperature water with freshly squeezed lemon juice in (no more than 1 tablespoon), upon waking. Be sure to use a straw so that you don’t stain the enamel on your teeth.
The liver is extremely active during sleep since this is the body’s time to restore and regenerate. Drinking enough water, especially in the morning, helps to make sure that your body can perform these jobs most effectively.
If you suffer from acid reflux due to low stomach acid you may find lemon water helpful. But take care to start with a hint of lemon juice first and see how you go. If you find it makes things worse, stick with drinking warm water only. If your reflux is due to a high stomach acid, again stick with drinking warm water without lemon juice.
2. Hydrate between meals
Not only is it important to drink water on waking, but also between meals. This is especially more important if you have low stomach acid. Herbal teas and non sugary and artificially sweetened drinks containing water also count. Good hydration will help activate bowel motility and push contents through the digestive system which will reduce microbes fermenting in your gut and toxicity in the body.
3. Use ginger to improve overall digestion
As mentioned earlier digestive juices help to improve stomach acid production and ginger is one of the best herbs for increasing digestive juices, plus supporting better digestion.
Add ginger to your meals, smoothies or drink ginger tea. Ginger won’t stop your body from making stomach acid. It simply helps keep it under control and because of its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, ginger can make the lining of your stomach stronger.
So ginger can help your body absorb more nutrients, reduce gas, relax your intestines if you suffer from abdominal cramping, kill harmful bacteria that is linked to acid reflux and protect against heartburn.
Ginger helps to prevent the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) from loosening, which means acid cannot regurgitate back into the esophagus.
4. Use smoothies and protein shakes to increase nutrient absorption
Liquid nutrition will help improve your stomach acid levels. Protein shakes are pre-metabolised and very easy to digest. They don’t depend on stomach acid production either.
5. Eat in a relaxed state
In our modern world we tend to eat a lot of food quickly and often throughout the day. It is important to be sure to eat when you’re only hungry and never to eat when you are in sympathetic (fight or flight) mode. Take time to relax, breathe deeply and increase parasympathetic activity. You should feel relaxed at least 15 minutes before eating and up until 1 - 2 hours after finishing your meal.
6. Chew your food thoroughly
This is more of an eating habit to support adequate stomach acid levels - and that’s to make sure you chew your food well. I’m talking 30 times or more before swallowing. Yep, it sounds a lot but making sure your food has been broken down as much as possible before you swallow can improve your stomach acid levels. The more saliva (aka spit), the more digestive enzymes you’ll produce.
Please comment below if you've found this blog post helpful, or have any fascinating thoughts to share.
And if you’d love to optimize your gut function, why not check out my Gut Health Plan.
Hi, I'm an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Pain & Stress Management Therapist, and Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner.
I help people elevate their mind and body health by addressing diet, nutrition and lifestyle symptoms. Let's work together to optimize how you feel and function.
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