Hydrochloric Acid and Digestion

“Sweet to the mouth, biter to the stomach; bitter to the mouth, sweet to the stomach.”

Ok, so acid might not be the most glamorous topic for a blog, but hydrochloric acid (HCL) gets me strangely excited! And here’s why. It plays a crucial role in digestion - HCL is released into the stomach when we eat and is the main component of gastric acid. It is mainly proteins that are broken down in the stomach, but having a good level of HCL is essential for digestion of all nutrients, as it triggers the pancreas to release enzymes that break down carbohydrates and fats. It also acts as a barrier to microorganisms in our food such as pathogenic bacteria, fungus, yeasts and parasites. Furthermore, we require an acid environment in our stomach in order to adequately absorb many essential nutrients, such as iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin B12 and folic acid. Having adequate HCL is completely essential – think about it this way; getting it right at the top of the digestive process is going to have a knock on effect the rest of the way down. Likewise, getting it wrong at the start, will also have an effect the rest of the way down the intestines.

Hypochlorydria, or low stomach acid, is a common problem that may be linked to many conditions such as asthma, arthritis, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis as well as general digestive difficulties. If you are having symptoms such as acid reflux, burping, gas, bloating or nausea after eating and lasting up to a couple of hours, then you might have low HCL. This would be particularly apparent after eating a protein-rich meal.

As acid reflux is a key symptom, it is often assumed that the problem is too much HCL, and the prescription of antacids has become extremely common. However, the research actually points another way in many cases (although not all). One theory is that excess pressure builds up in the gut, forcing open the oesophageal sphincter, which is the passageway between the oesophagus and stomach. Usually this remains tightly shut (unless swallowing) in order to keep the acid away from the delicate lining in the lower oesophagus. If small amounts of acid seep through this can be extremely painful and results in the symptoms of acid reflux.

The reason for this increase in pressure in the stomach is thought by some to be overgrowth of bacteria in our small intestines. The bacteria release gas when they metabolise food we have eaten (particularly undigested carbohydrates). The overgrowth of bacteria may actually to be due to low stomach acid, which allows undigested carbohydrates into our intestines, feeding the bacteria to the point their numbers grow uncontrolled. A diet that is very carbohydrate heavy will exacerbate the issue, as will being overweight, eating beyond the point of being full, bending or lying after eating or eating spicy/fatty meals.

Other Possible causes of low stomach acid:

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. This is a vicious cycle, as low stomach acid levels leads to poor absorption of nutrients.
Chronic stress - this impairs the body’s ability to make enough stomach acid.
Excessive alcohol consumption – this damages the cells in the stomach that produce HCL.
Gastritis or an infection in the stomach (such as helicobactor pylori), which also damage the HCL secreting cells.
Age - The average 60 year old only produces about one fourth as much HCL as a 20 year old.

So although it seems very counter intuitive to talk to someone about low HCL when they are experiencing acid reflux, actually it is essential to look into whether this is a possibility. One way that can be used to help establish stomach acid levels is the baking soda test. This test works by drinking a baking soda solution and creating a chemical reaction in your stomach between the baking soda and HCL. The result is carbon dioxide gas that causes burping. This test isn’t fool proof, and it probably wouldn’t be something your GP is going to get you to do, as low HCL still seems to be off the radar a little where the medical profession is concerned. But given that the test cannot harm you, why not give it a try. Do perform the test three consecutive mornings to get as accurate a reading as possible. Here’s how you do it:

 Mix ¼ tsp baking soda with 150ml cold water first thing in the morning before eating or drinking. Try stimulating brain signals to the stomach by smelling something tasty first. Drink the baking soda solution. Time how long it takes to belch. Time up to five minutes.
If you haven’t belched within five minutes stop timing. In theory, if you are producing enough stomach acid you’ll be likely to burp within two to three minutes. Early and repeated belching may be due to excessive stomach acid (but don’t confuse these burps with small burps from swallowing air when drinking the solution). Any belching after three minutes indicates low stomach acid.

Natural Ways to Increase Stomach Acid
For someone with low stomach acid, it might be a sign of underlying problems that may need a bit of unpicking with a nutritional therapist. But here are some simple ways that anyone can use to see if they can get things going without needing to see someone:

Eat small meals throughout the day, rather than fewer, larger meals. Ensure your stomach is never over full after any one meal, as this will increase pressure on the oesophageal sphincter.

Reduce bacterial overgrowth - add raw, crushed garlic and coconut oil to your diet to benefit from their antimicrobial properties. Sliced ginger in tea is also great – and if you are ok with how strong the flavour is, then eat the ginger slices afterwards.

Reduce refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, cakes and biscuits, as these provide the bacteria with an ongoing food source.

Avoid things that relax the lower oesophageal sphincter: Caffeine, alcohol and smoking. Hormones released during pregnancy also do this, but not much you can do about that!

Increase stimulating foods: some foods stimulate the release of HCL and should therefore be included in the diet on a regular basis: black olives, lemon, kale, chard, celery, fennel, ginger, spinach and natural sea salt (required for HCL synthesis).

Key nutrients the body requires to make HCL are zinc, vitamin B1, B3 and B6 which are found in nuts and seeds (particularly pumpkin seeds for their zinc), whole grains, pulses, collard greens, kale, spinach, peas and cabbage.

Chew food thoroughly, this not only makes it easier for the enzymes to break it down, but actually sends messages to the brain to help prepare the body for digestion.

Avoid eating when stressed, as stress and anxiety inhibit the release of stomach acid and the digestive processes in general. Or make sure you try and relax for 5-10 minutes before eating your meal. Even if it’s just taking 20 long, deep breaths.

Maintain an upright position for at least 45 minutes after eating to allow for easier digestion – i.e. don’t eat whilst lying down horizontal on the sofa!!

Last but not least: Drink plenty of water - the body will not release enough HCL if you are dehydrated, but other than a few sips try not to drink just before, during or after a meal, as this will dilute the HCL. Try sipping water with fresh lemon, this stimulates HCL. And for anyone who really wants to give their HCL the best kick it can get, make yourself some fresh celery juice everyday:

Juice 1 bunch of celery with 2 peeled lemons and have with some ice cubes.

This provides your body with a tonne of mineral salts needed for hydrochloric acid production. Sounds pretty revolting, but actually is really refreshing.


Ok, I hope that was helpful. See you next week


Sources and further information see www.chriskresser.com or www.scdlifestyle.com, www.medicalmedium.com

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