Have you ever suffered from heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, GERD, IBS, and/or other digestive issues? Were you told that your body was making too much acid and to take antacids, such as Tums? How about acid blockers such as Prilosec? What if I told you the real problem was too little stomach acid, rather than too much? Yup that’s right, too little. So those antacids and acid-blockers are really doing more harm then good. They bring temporary relief but can have serious side effects. Let’s start by discussing how digestion is supposed to work.
The purpose of digestion is to breakdown food into molecules that are so small so that the nutrients are able to be absorbed and used by the cells. Digestion is a north to south process (so to correct any dysfunction, you’ll work from the top down- but more on that later). What this means is that digestion begins in the brain at the sight/smell/thought of food. Your brain signals your salivary glands to start producing saliva, as well as stomach acid. It is essential that you are in a relaxed state before you begin eating. Your body needs to be in “rest and digest” mode in order to properly digest the food. This is why it’s not a good idea to eat right before a workout. When your body is under stress (exercise is a stress on the body), it puts digestion on hold. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between stress from being chased by an animal and stress from work or emotional issues. To the body, all stress is an emergency that gets prioritized. So, don’t eat with people who you don’t get along with, don’t eat in the car, don’t eat while you’re working, don’t eat while walking, etc. Mechanical and chemical breakdown of the food happens in your mouth. Make sure you are chewing well and eating slowly. Aim for 30 chews before you swallow, and set aside an hour to eat and be relaxed.
In the stomach, Hydrochloric Acid (HCl), along with pepsin & enzymes, breakdown the food even more. The normal pH of the stomach should be between 1.5 and 3. During digestion HCl is excreted into the stomach with a pH of 0.8 which is almost pure acid. The purpose of HCl is to disinfect the stomach, kill bacteria/parasites, activates pepsin (so we can digest proteins), stimulates gastrin, and breaks down proteins. After the food is mixed with the acid and gastrin, it is broken down even more into a very acidic paste called chyme. The chyme is released, via the pyloric sphincter, into the duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine). The acidic chyme triggers the small intestine to secrete mucous. The small intestine also secretes two hormones into the bloodstream, Secretin and Cholecystokinin (CCK). Secretin triggers the pancreas to release bicarbonate. CCK triggers the gallbladder to release bile. Bile is needed to breakdown fats. The chyme is almost completely digested in the duodenum. It is then moved to the jejunum. This is where nutrient absorption takes place.
The leftover chyme is moved to the large intestine. The job of the large intestine is to recycle water, absorb any nutrients that are still available with the help of gut flora (microorganisms that live in our intestines) and convert the nutrients to Vitamins K, B1, B2, B12, and butyric acid, and to create and release feces.
Now let’s discuss digestive dysfunction.
Digestive dysfunction also begins from the top down. It is essential to be in a relaxed state while eating. If you are not in a relaxed state- your digestion is already compromised. The next place digestion could go wrong is in the mouth. Many people tend to eat very fast. They’ll just chew a couple times and swallow huge hunks of food. This causes the stomach to work extra hard to breakdown the food. For the food to be broken down properly in the stomach there needs to be adequate stomach acid. This is the next place digestion can go wrong.
The stomach lining is covered in mucous to protect it from the acid. If there is not enough acid in the stomach during digestion, it could lead to a host of problems. While it is possible to have too much stomach acid (it is extremely rare), most people don’t make enough stomach acid. To make matters worse, most people are inhibiting the little acid they have left. Adequate stomach acid is required for proper nutrient absorption (nutrients feed our cells). Stomach acid stimulates the secretion of pepsin (which aids in protein digestion), so if there is low acid than there are low levels of pepsin as well. This could lead to amino acid deficiencies, which can than lead to depression, anxiety, insomnia and other harmful chronic disorders. Undigested proteins can also enter the bloodstream, a condition known as leaky gut syndrome or intestinal permeability. This does not occur in proper digestion. Undigested proteins in the bloodstream are seen as foreign invaders to the body and there is an immune response. This contributes to people developing food allergies. Low levels of stomach acid are associated with autoimmune disorders such as Lupus, Type I Diabetes, Graves’ disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Celiac Disease and many others.
Stomach acid is also needed to prevent bacterial and fungal overgrowth. The highly acidic environment of the stomach prevents these microorganisms from multiplying. Low levels of stomach acid allow these microorganisms to multiply and cause digestive distress. When there is not enough acid in the stomach during digestion, proteins putrefy, carbohydrates ferment, & fats go rancid. Basically, the food just sits in your stomach and rots. In his book Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You: Natural Relief from Heartburn, Indigestion, Reflux & GERD, Jonathan V. Wright, M.D. says “Atrophic gastritis is the major cause of “age-related” declining stomach acid levels. Many studies have demonstrated that people with atrophic gastritis are exceptionally vulnerable to a wide range of serious disorders that go far beyond the stomach and esophagus. These include:
- Poor absorption of important vitamins, minerals, and amino acids
- Poor digestion of proteins
- Bronchial asthma in childhood (an obvious exception to “age-related” atrophic gastritis)
- Bacterial overgrowth in the stomach and small intestine, leading to symptoms such as heartburn, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and an increased susceptibility to potentially fatal infections such as cholera and Salmonella
- Pernicious anemia
- Stomach cancer
- Skin diseases, including forms of acne, dermatitis (itching, redness, swelling), eczema, and hives
- Gallbladder disease (gallstones)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Grave’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Chronic hepatitis
- Type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes
- Accelerated aging”
Not having enough stomach acid can lead to all these various conditions because proper digestion is essential to living a healthy life. When there is not enough stomach acid, it affects the rest of the digestive process as well. Now the pancreas won’t secrete digestive enzymes and bicarbonate, which could lead to duodenal ulcers. The gallbladder won’t release bile, which can lead to spasms, gallbladder attacks, fatty acid deficiency, and undigested fats. Proteins won’t be digested properly (as discussed earlier with leaky gut syndrome). Now the large intestine has maldigested food filled with parasites, worms, & flukes that should’ve been killed by the stomach acid and broken down properly. This leads to inflammation and backflow into the small intestine, which is very hard on the immune system. These maldigested foods can also mess with the gut flora in our intestines. The microorganisms that live in our intestines need to be in the proper balance. Eating fermented foods can help keep our gut flora in balance- but having proper digestion is essential.
So why do antacids and acid-blockers relieve heartburn?
Well, any amount of acid in the esophagus is going to burn- even if it is not acidic enough for the stomach. The stomach is designed to be able hold acid without damage because of its layer of protective mucous. It is the backflow into the esophagus that is causing the heartburn- not too much acid. Healing your digestion naturally is a much better way to solve the problem than resorting to antacids and acid-blockers because they just cause way too much damage in the long run. Nature knows what its doing- the acid is there for a reason- so don’t suppress it! To heal your digestive tract, it is essential to eat a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet. This means eating foods that are found in nature, and avoiding foods that were manufactured/processed. Learn more here. Always be in a relaxed state when you eat and chew your food well! You’ll also want to eliminate alcohol, nicotine, & caffeine during the time that your gut is healing (you should always avoid nicotine). It would also be a good idea to see if you have food allergies and eliminate those foods while your gut is healing. Supplemental HCl, (and other supplements) may also be necessary to help heal your digestion. Using antacids and acid-blockers is just a band-aid (and a pretty bad one that causes more harm than good), the key is to heal your digestive tract and restore function.
Was this information useful to you? Did you learn anything new? Let me know in the comments!