Despite what you may have been led to believe by conventional medicine propaganda, the most common cause of symptoms of heartburn, indigestion, gas, and belching is low stomach acid, not too much (read this post for more information on how low stomach acid is jeopardizing your health). According to Jonathon Wright, MD (author of "Why Stomach Acid is Good for You"), approximately 90% of Americans produce too little stomach acid. Low stomach acid impairs digestion and leads to a wide variety of health problems that include:
- Indigestion and bloating
- Burping or gas after meals
- Excessive fullness or discomfort after meals
- Constipation and/or diarrhea
- Chronic intestinal infections
- Undigested food in stools
- Food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities
- Chronic fatigue
- Mineral and nutrient deficiencies (including iron and/or vitamin B12 deficiency)
- Dry skin or hair
- Weak or cracked nails
- Any autoimmune disease diagnosis
From a holistic health perspective, bringing the body back into balance often starts by addressing the foundation of digestion. You are not only what you eat, but what you are able to digest and absorb, and for many, proper digestion can't be brought into balance without first correcting low stomach acid production. The following are some natural methods to increase stomach acid production and improve digestion:
Eat sitting down and while in a calm, relaxed state: The process of digestion truly begins in the brain. The mere sight, smell, or thought of food triggers reflexes in the brain that result in increased stomach acid secretion. This process occurs through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for most restorative functions in the body, including that of digestion. Unfortunately, many of us are living in a perpetual state of activation of the sympathetic nervous system, known as the "fight or flight" response. We are continuously stressed and pressed for time, which may result in eating hurried meals on-the-go, in the car, at the desk, and often while multi-tasking. This type of rushing through a meal and lack of focus on what you are eating does not allow for proper activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which results in less stomach acid secretion. To take advantage of the maximum secretion of stomach acid, make sure to calm and relax yourself before eating. If particularly stressed, take a few moments to close your eyes and focus on deep breathing. Always sit down to eat, if possible at a kitchen or dining table, and eliminate as many distractions as possible.
Chew your food properly: Mechanical digestion of food begins in the mouth. While chewing food properly won't necessarily increase stomach acid production, it will make it easier for the process of digestion to continue once in the stomach. Most people rush through meals so quickly that they gulp down food without chewing adequately and this can put a significant strain on a stomach that is already low in stomach acid. A good guideline for proper chewing is 20-30 chews per bite. If you aren't used to proper chewing, this may seem like a lot. Try putting down your fork in-between bites and counting your chews until you get a feel for adequate chewing.
Eliminate food sensitivities: Food sensitivities are associated with low stomach acid production. The best way to tell if you have a sensitivity to a particular food is to eliminate it for a period of time (I usually recommend 30 days) and monitor your symptoms. If your symptoms improve drastically, and then return when you reintroduce the food, it is likely that you have a sensitivity to that food. Although it is possible to develop a sensitivity to nearly any food, these are some common food sensitivities:
- Wheat (and Gluten)
- A variety of food additives and preservatives
- Nightshades (especially for those dealing with autoimmune issues)
Following a nutrient-dense, whole food lifestyle, such as Paleo, that eliminates all processed foods, grains, legumes, and dairy will easily remove most of these common food sensitivity culprits from your diet. The Paleo Autoimmune Protocol, which additionally restricts eggs, nuts and seeds, and nightshades will target the remainder of the common offenders.
Be aware of other stomach irritants: There are many substances that are irritating to the lining of the stomach and can impact the production of stomach acid or have a direct effect on the function of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Certain foods, such as hot peppers, spicy foods, citrus, tomatoes, caffeine, and alcohol may be problematic. Medications such as antacids, proton pump inhibitors, and H2 blockers are intended to work by lowering stomach acid or interfering with the natural action of stomach acid. Also, there are many groups of medications, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics, bronchodilators, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, nitrates, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and anticholinergics that are associated with a weakened LES and/or gut lining irritation. As with any prescription medication, if you are considering reducing or stopping your use of the medication, you should first discuss it with your prescriber.
The next group of suggestions involve using natural remedies to increase and support stomach acid production. **WARNING: If you are currently being treated for gastrointestinal reflux disease, peptic ulcers, Barret's esophagus, or any other serious upper GI disorder, I recommend that you consult with an appropriate holistic health practitioner prior to attempting these remedies on your own.
Lemon/Apple Cider Vinegar Water: To temporarily increase the acidity of the stomach, drink a small amount of fresh lemon juice or apple cider vinegar added to room temperature water about 15-20 minutes prior to eating. It is important that the water is not too cold because cold water can interfere with the digestion. If using lemon, squeeze half a lemon in 8 oz. of water. For apple cider vinegar, add 1 tablespoon in 8 oz. of water. If consuming apple cider vinegar or lemon juice in water regularly, I recommend drinking it through a straw and brushing your teeth well after in order to protect the enamel of your teeth.
Digestive Bitters: Another great option for increasing stomach acidity are digestive bitters, which can be found in most health food stores. Digestive bitters tap into the body's neuro-lingual response that occurs when you taste something bitter. The bitter taste stimulates increased stomach acid production, as well as other digestive juices. Follow the dosing directions on the bottle.
Betaine HCL Supplementation: If you taking any anti-inflammatory medication, such as corticosteroids or NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, Advil, etc.), it is important that you do not attempt betaine HCL supplementation due to an increased risk of GI bleeding and ulcers.** Although supplementing with lemon juice in water, apple cider vinegar in water, or digestive bitters can be helpful in mild cases, many people will need something stronger to help bring stomach acid production back into balance. Betaine HCL supplementation provides the same type of acid produced naturally by the stomach. It increases the acidity of the stomach to support proper digestion. Often, by supplementing with betaine HCL for a period of time, the body will gradually shift to a state of balance, the stomach will begin producing adequate amounts of its own acid, and supplementation will no longer be needed. The dose and length of time needed to supplement with betaine HCL varies for each individual though and some people may require long-term support. Although betaine HCL can be obtained at most health food stores, I recommend working with an informed holistic health practitioner for best results.
Are you working toward correcting your own low stomach acid in order to restore digestion? Have you tried any of these techniques and found them helpful? I would love to hear from you!
Wright, J. & Lenard, L. (2001). Why Stomach Acid is Good for You: Natural Relief from Heartburn, Indigestion, Reflux, and GERD. Lanham, Maryland: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.
Brain: Everyone's Idle, Wikipedia, 2009; Giraffe: Pixabay, Unknown author, 2007; Bread and Grains: National Cancer Institute, 1989; Ibuprofen: ParentingPatch, 2013; Lemon Water: Go_Nils, Flickr, 2009;