Natural Solutions to Increase Stomach Acid and Improve Digestion

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:

  • Heartburn
  • GERD
  • 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
  • Acne
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Mineral and nutrient deficiencies (including iron and/or vitamin B12 deficiency)
  • Dry skin or hair
  • Weak or cracked nails
  • Asthma
  • Depression
  • Osteoporosis
  • 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)
  • Dairy
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Corn
  • 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. 

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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!   

References

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.

Photo Credits:

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;

Tales of an exercise addict with autoimmune disease

As a registered nurse, personal trainer, and an athlete, I believe exercise is a key component to overall health.  Just as real food is medicine, exercise is medicine too!  Besides its positive effects on body composition, functional ability, strength, cardiovascular fitness, and nearly every system of the body, exercise also acts as an immune-enhancer by releasing endorphins and other neurotransmitters that modulate immune function.  Even though exercise is clearly important for everyone, it can be especially difficult for those with autoimmune disease. I have to be honest and admit that my personal experience is this subject is still a bit of a sore spot for me.  Having been an athlete my entire life, it's a huge part of how I identify myself.  For many years, I've maintained workouts 6-7 days/week for 2-3hours/day.  Not because I felt like I had to, but because I just really love it.  I love the feeling of the runner's high after a hard endurance run.  I equally love the good burn after hitting the heavy weights in the gym.  Before I was ill earlier this year, I would feel extremely out-of-whack if I missed a workout.  I've often jokingly admitted that I'm addicted to exercise, but there is definitely truth to that statement.

However, this year has been quite a defining year for me and I've begun to realize that although the right amount of exercise is a wonderful thing, too much exercise can be harmful.  When you add autoimmune disease into the mix, it becomes even more necessary to find balance in all areas of your life, including physical activity and fitness.  I am currently trying to work on that aspect of my life and it's been very difficult for me.  But let me back up a bit...

Earlier this year, I was training for a summer marathon.  This was the year that I was finally going to get back into long distance running.  About 5 years ago, I injured myself in a race.  I tore the vastus medialis in my left leg, one of the muscles that comprises the quadriceps and helps to control movement of the knee.  I went through multiple rounds of physical therapy over several years, but still had pain and discomfort.  The doctors were stumped because the repeat MRIs showed nothing structurally wrong that would be causing the pain.  To this day, my leg/knee still hurts, but earlier this year I had decided that it had likely improved as much as it was going to and I wasn't letting it stop me from running the marathon.  A recent visit to a rheumatologist has finally unlocked the mystery to this and several other injuries that I've had that just won't heal.  The rheumatologist diagnosed me with enthesitis, which is a painful inflammation of the sites where tendons and ligaments insert into the bone.  Enthesitis is often caused by autoimmune disease.

But months before that diagnosis, there I was training for the marathon and I felt pretty good.  I signed up for several short and mid-distance races to keep me on track with my training and I was having a great time.  In between the running, I was lifting weights, cycling, swimming, and Crossfitting.  Then one day, I tripped, fell down the stairs, and badly sprained my ankle.  I still have not fully recovered from this injury due to the enthesitis that has set into the ankle tendon insertion sites.  A few weeks after the ankle sprain, I started getting very ill.  Because I had no idea what was going on with my body, I kept pushing through my workouts.  I wasn't running at that time due to my ankle, but I was still lifting heavy weights, cycling, and swimming.  It wasn't until I was officially diagnosed that I realized just how bad I felt and I admitted to myself that I couldn't keep up with my workout schedule anymore.  I have a small personal training business on the side and I finally had to make the decision to call my clients and put them on hold.  I wasn't well enough to train other people, let alone myself.

Most people would have completely stopped working out at that point, but I was holding on.  I cut back my workouts to 3-4 days/week.  I stopped all cardio, except for an indoor cycling class that I attended once a week.  Long, sustained cardio sessions are typically not the best choice for a person with IBD.  I made a half-hearted attempt to keep up with my weightlifting, but it just wasn't the same.  I was mostly going through the motions in an effort to maintain some semblance of normality.  I would go to the gym and become frustrated and depressed because my entire body hurt and my joints were aching (I've since discovered that I also have inflammatory arthritis, which may or may not be related to IBD).  I felt like I had been hit by a train.  I once described it as waking up everyday and feeling like I had the flu.  Except it never went away.  I lost quite a bit of weight.  I was fatigued with a tiredness that I felt to the bone.  It was a challenge to get out of bed everyday and make it to work.  Part of this extreme fatigue is due to the nature of the autoimmune disease that I have and part may be due to the adrenal fatigue that I'm dealing with on top of everything else.

At some point, I realized that I needed to take a real break from the gym.  My body was just not going to let me go on like this.  For about a month, I completely put my workouts on hold.  I still maintained some physical activity in that I continued to get out and walk my dog everyday, even if only for a short distance.  After that month was over, I was feeling much better.  My GI symptoms were under control due to the healing dietary changes.  I was still having some joint pain and fatigue, but not quite as bad as previously.  It does continue to be a struggle, but I'm hopeful that the diet and other alternative treatments I'm using will continue to alleviate these lingering symptoms.

Since learning that I'm suffering from adrenal fatigue, I've made some changes to my gym routine now that I'm back at the gym.  I am still avoiding cardio sessions.  I am lifting weights, but I'm limiting my workouts to 4 days/week and a maximum of an hour in length.  I've made an effort to incorporate a lot more yoga into my routine.  I'm trying to listen to my body more.  If I'm not feeling good, I don't push it.  There have been a few workouts recently that I really felt ready for more (I am really, really missing Crossfit), but I know that I'm not quite ready for it yet.  It's a work in progress...it remains very difficult for me to admit that I'm not 100%, like I was in this photo taken during a tough Crossfit workout only last year:

I am not disheartened though; I know that I will get back to my former self!

I realize that many people with autoimmune disease have a different sort of challenge than me.  For me, it's a challenge not to ignore my body and push too hard, but for others, it is difficult to maintain any sort of physical activity.  I plan on addressing that issue and giving some tips on how to safely exercise with autoimmune disease in future posts.

How about you?  Have your workouts suffered due to autoimmune disease?