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  • Writer's pictureAmy Donovan (BNatMed)

The Importance of Stomach Acid

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

I've become a bit obsessed with stomach acid of late.

This is probably because I am seeing an increased amount of clients who are coming to see me with obvious signs that their digestion is off and very often it's because of this crucial component - stomach acid.

Stomach acid, also known as gastric acid, plays a crucial role in the digestive process and overall health.

It is primarily composed of hydrochloric acid (HCl) and is produced by the parietal cells in the lining of the stomach.

If we don't have the balance right, we can see a wide range of issues not only in our digestion but throughout the whole body.

Here are some key reasons why stomach acid is important...

  • Digestion of Proteins: One of the main functions of stomach acid is to aid in the digestion of proteins. It denatures the proteins present in food, unfolding their complex structures and exposing the peptide bonds. This process is essential because proteins need to be broken down into smaller peptides and amino acids for the body to absorb and utilise them.

  • Activation of Enzymes: Stomach acid also activates various digestive enzymes, particularly pepsinogen, which is secreted by the stomach's chief cells. Once activated by the acidic environment, pepsinogen is converted into its active form, pepsin. Pepsin is responsible for further breaking down proteins into smaller peptides such as amino acids.

  • Anti-microbial Defence: The highly acidic environment of the stomach acts as a natural defense mechanism against ingested pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses. Most microorganisms cannot survive the low pH of gastric acid, reducing the risk of infections from contaminated food.

  • Nutrient Absorption: Proper stomach acid levels are essential for the absorption of several nutrients, including calcium, iron, zinc, and certain B vitamins. Without adequate acid, the absorption of these nutrients can become impaired, leading to potential nutrient deficiencies.

  • pH Regulation: Stomach acid plays a role in maintaining the acidic environment of the stomach, which is necessary for optimal digestion. It also helps in regulating the overall pH levels of the digestive system, promoting a suitable environment for the activity of other digestive enzymes and microorganisms.

  • Preventing Bacterial Overgrowth: Besides its role in killing pathogens, stomach acid also helps prevent the overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. If stomach acid production is compromised, there is an increased risk of bacterial overgrowth, which can lead to unwanted digestive problems such as bloating, flatulence, gas, and belching.

  • Gut Health: Proper digestion and nutrient absorption contribute to overall gut health, which is crucial for the proper functioning of the digestive system and the overall well-being of an individual.

It's important to note that excessive stomach acid production can lead to conditions like acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and peptic ulcers. These conditions can cause discomfort and long-term health issues, so a balance in stomach acid levels is essential for optimal health.

What causes low stomach acid production?

Several factors can contribute to low stomach acid production and some people may be more susceptible due to genetics, lifestyle, or underlying health conditions.

Here are some common causes of low stomach acid production:

  • Age - Stomach acid production tends to decline with age.

  • Chronic Stress - Prolonged stress can impact various bodily functions, including digestion. Stress can lead to reduced blood flow to the stomach and a decrease in stomach acid production.

  • Medications - Certain medications, such as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and H2 blockers used to treat acid reflux and ulcers, can suppress stomach acid production when used over an extended period. This can potentially lead to low stomach acid levels.

  • H. pylori Infection - Helicobacter pylori is a bacterium that can cause stomach infections and lead to inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis). In some cases, chronic H. pylori infection can reduce stomach acid production.

  • Autoimmune Gastritis - This is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the cells in the stomach lining that produce stomach acid. This condition can result in reduced acid production.

  • Gastric Surgery - Some types of gastric surgery, such as partial gastrectomy or gastric bypass surgery, can lead to reduced stomach acid production due to alterations in the stomach's anatomy.

  • Chronic Illness - Certain chronic conditions, such as Addison's disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders, can affect stomach acid production.

  • Diet - A diet low in nutrient-dense foods, inadequate protein intake, or consuming large amounts of processed foods.

  • Excessive fluid intake during meals - Drinking excessive amounts of fluids, especially cold beverages, during meals can dilute stomach acid and impair digestion.

  • Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies - Deficiencies in nutrients like zinc, thiamine, and chloride can influence stomach acid production. These nutrients play important roles in the production and secretion of stomach acid.

  • Chronic Inflammation - Inflammation of the stomach lining, whether due to infections, dietary factors, or autoimmune conditions, can interfere with the normal functioning of cells that produce stomach acid.

What are some of the signs that you may have poor stomach acid production?

Low stomach acid production, also known as hypochlorhydria, can differ in each individual, however, these are some of the common symptoms:

  • Digestive discomfort like bloating, gas, indigestion, feeling of fullness when you haven't quite finished your meal, discomfort after protein-rich meals

  • Acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

  • Excessive belching or burping, and sick burps

  • Undigested food particles in your stools (poop)

  • Food sensitivities, especially those foods with high protein

  • Nutrient deficiencies in vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and zinc as stomach acid is crucial for the absorption of these nutrients.

  • Weak, splitting, and brittle nails and hair

  • Anaemia or low iron - signs also include easy bruising, pale skin, breathlessness, fatigue

  • Skin conditions

  • Increased infections and poor immunity

What are some ways to increase your stomach acid?

Here are a few natural ways to help stimulate digestion and therefore increase your stomach acid production to help with digestion.

  • Start your day by adding the juice of 1/4 of a lemon to a glass of warm water. You could also use raw apple cider vinegar instead of lemon water

  • Before each of your main meals, have a 1/2 tsp of apple cider vinegar in a small glass of water to stimulate the gastric acid in your stomach for digestion

  • Take your time to eat - chew each mouthful slowly

  • Consuming digestive bitters such as rocket, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichokes, and kale to stimulate digestive enzyme production.

  • Reducing stress with relaxation techniques such as deep diaphragmatic breathing and meditation

  • Mindful eating without distractions from your TV, phone, or computer while eating your meals.

If any of the points made here have you questioning whether you are making enough stomach acid or if you are digesting your food properly then I'd love to hear from you!

I offer a FREE 20 minute chat over the phone to give us the opportunity to discuss what might be going on for you and to sort out our best way forward.

It's called a Let's Talk appointment and you can book this here.

I'm Amy Donovan and I am a qualified and registered Naturopath, Medical Herbalist and Massage Therapist working from my private clinic in Te Awamutu, New Zealand.

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