Low Stomach Acid
Updated: Jan 18
In my last article, we looked at reflux and how and why it occurs. In case you didn't manage to read it, you can access it here. But just for a quick recap, reflux or GERD, is when the contents of your stomach backwash into your esophagus and cause pain and burning. There are different reasons for this to happen, but the one I want to focus on today, is low hydrochloric acid (HCl).
HCl is necessary for a number of different actions in the stomach. It is responsible for the breakdown of proteins, the activation of different enzymes and hormones, and the protection against bacterial overgrowth in the gastrointestinal tract.
Symptoms of low HCl can include:
long-standing or recurring intestinal infections
undigested food in your stools
a feeling of overfullness after meals
wanting to eat even though you're not hungry (this can also be attributed to emotional issues)
What Causes Low HCl?
One of the primary reasons people experience low HCl is ageing. Unfortunately, as we age, everything changes, and one of these things is our ability to produce adequate amounts of HCl.
One study on men and women over 60 showed that more than 30% suffered from a condition called atrophic gastritis, where there was little or no acid secretion present. Krasinski SD, Russell RM, Samloff IM, Jacob RA, Dallal GE, McGandy RB, Hartz SC. Fundic atrophic gastritis in an elderly population. Effect on hemoglobin and several serum nutritional indicators. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1986 Nov;34(11):800-6.
In a second study, no basal secretions were detected in 40% of postmenopausal women. Grossman MI, Kirsner JB, Gillespie IE. Basal and histalog-stimulated gastric secretion in control subjects and in patients with peptic ulcer or gastric cancer. Gastroenterology 1963;45:15-26.
Another major cause of low HCl is stress....yep, that's right....stress. Stress seems to pop up it's pesky little head behind just about everything that goes wrong in our bodies.
Why does stress affect the production of HCl?
When we are stressed, our body is in "fight or flight" mode and one of the things that happens is that the body redirects blood flow to the peripheral areas of the body, legs so you can run away from danger, arms so you can fight, brain so you can think really clearly, eyes so you have clear vision, as well as increasing the blood flow to the heart so you have the extra oxygen you need to run. While all this is happening, areas that are not necessary for immediate survival are restricted in function, with one of these being digestion. Let's face it, you don't need to sit down to dinner if you're being chased by a bear!
While all these responses are normal and critical to our survival, they become a problem when we are living in a state of chronic stress, and for those of us alive in the 21st century, that includes just about everyone (unless you live in a monastry on top of a high mountain, breathing perfectly clean air, drinking glacial water and eating organic food all the time. Oh, and there's no technology there either!!) You get my point....everyone carries some amount of stress these days, but for some, no, heaps of people, their stress levels never come down to normal.
So, chronic stress impairs the production of HCl because digestive process are inhibited due to being in a state of low grade fight or flight.
Some other reasons for low HCl include:
poor dietary choices which inflame the gastrointestinal tract and create unstable blood sugar responses, which again, affect stress hormones
H-Pylori overgrowth produces an enzyme called urease, which, among other things, neutralises the acidifying effects of HCl, leading to more stress on the gastrointestinal system
eating your food too fast or as you're rushing to get out the door
overusing non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can lead to the erosion of the stomach lining and the reduced ability of the gastric cells to produce HCl
the use of PPI's (proton pump inhibitors) such as Nexium decrease the production of stomach acid by around 30%
food sensitivities/allergies lead to gastrointestinal stress
drinking water with meals can dilute stomach acid leading to poor digestion and also weaken HCl production over time
diets that are low in protein can lead to decreased production HCl
nutrient deficiencies - HCl is dependant on certain nutrients for production and if these are not available through the diet, HCl production is affected
As you can see, there are many reasons that may be contributing to low stomach acid, and if you are in the unfortunate place of having multiple of these reasons, your chance of low HCl becomes much stronger.
But don't despair! Building up the production of stomach acid is very achievable and not hard when you have the right tools to help. But I wouldn't run out and try to do this by yourself. Finding someone qualified to help you is always the best option.
There are a couple of things you can do right now at home to help if you think you may have low HCl.
Firstly, look at your stress levels and take measures to bring them down as much as you can. Read here.
Secondly, take a good look at your diet and remove those foods that may be contributing to reflux and low HCl....refined carbohydrates and sugars, coffee, excessive chocolate consumption, hydrogenated fats and oils, takeaway food etc. Eat a lower carbohydrate diet, rich in vegetables, good fats, quality proteins, some fruit and pure, clean water.
Thirdly, eat smaller meals instead of 3 big meals/day, slow down your eating, and chew your food really well.
I'd love to hear your experience if you give these things a try, and if you need some more help, get in touch and I'd be happy to help you on your journey.
Be well, and enjoy your journey to health and wellness,