Contrary to popular belief, excess stomach acid is not the typical cause of indigestion. Often, it’s a lack of stomach acid that triggers discomfort after a meal.
Low stomach acid isn’t simply an occasional phenomenon brought on by certain foods. Unfortunately, it’s just another part of aging. The stomach gets tired after you’ve asked it work meal after meal, year after year.
According to Dr. Jonathon V. Wright, M.D., a researcher and pioneer in natural medicine, by the time you hit age 40 your output of stomach acid (also referred to as hydrochloric acid or simply HCL) has decreased by nearly 75% compared to your pre-teen years.1
The medical term for low or absent production of hydrochloric acid is hypochlorhydria. Although it’s generally something that happens with age, some diseases affecting the stomach lining and medications that suppress stomach acid production can contribute to hypochlorhydria at a younger age.
The human requirement for vitamins, minerals and other nutrients remains relatively constant throughout adult life. However, our ability to properly digest food and absorb vital nutrients declines with advancing age. And one of the most common age-related causes of impaired digestive function is the reduction of hydrochloric acid production in the stomach.
The root cause of acid reflux and its common symptom heartburn can often be pinned on a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) that initiates chronic low level inflammation of the stomach lining. H. pylori can wreak havoc in the stomach if you don’t have enough HCL to efficiently kill it.
Inflammation and pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter develops when H. pylori is allowed to colonize the gut. This irritation and pressure doesn’t allow the sphincter to close properly, and you no longer have that protective seal that keeps gastric contents in the stomach. The weakened flap allows stomach contents to retreat back up into the esophagus (this is acid reflux) where it creates the characteristic burning sensation.
Why is HCL So Crucial to Optimal Digestion?
HCL doesn’t technically digest food, but it helps to break down the connective tissues in meat and activates the enzyme pepsin to start protein digestion.
Nature intended for an acidic environment in the stomach. For optimal digestion, the stomach needs to be a 2 on the pH scale. This is the ideal acidity for pepsin to do its magic. As acidity moves higher up the pH scale, pepsin loses its mojo, and stops working completely at a pH of 6.5.
A pH of 2 is also perfectly acidic to kill potentially harmful bacteria that are inadvertently ingested with your food and drinks—think potato salad that’s not properly refrigerated at an outdoor picnic or questionably clean water you drank in a foreign land.
HCL is the body’s first defense against food borne pathogens. Remember H. pylori? You don’t want it sticking around your stomach for long. If left to colonize, H. pylori can cause ulcers in the stomach lining2, and for some individuals an infection can lead to stomach cancer.3
Another bonus of ideal stomach acidity is better absorption of some nutrients, such as vitamin B12, folic acid, calcium and iron.
Are You Reading the Warning Signs?
Your body is pretty ingenious in the ways it’s trying to warn of a low HCL situation, but are you listening? If any of the following symptoms are becoming a common occurrence after meals, it’s time to give your digestive health some much needed TLC:
Acid reflux Bloating Diarrhea Heartburn
Belching Constipation Flatulence Stomach cramps
If left untreated, you could be perpetuating chronic digestive diseases:
Food allergies/sensitivities Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Natural health researcher, author and founder of the Baseline of Health® Foundation, Jon Barron states, “It’s estimated that 80% of people with food allergies suffer from some degree of low acid production in the stomach.” 4
What’s the Best Way to Combat Low Stomach Acid?
The simple thing to do is to increase your HCL at mealtimes, because you can’t simply make the stomach produce more on demand.
Betaine HCL is the single most important supplement you should take for digestive health.
What is Betaine HCL?
Betaine hydrochloride (betaine HCL) is a vitamin-like compound found in some foods such as sugar beets and grains. As a supplement taken before meals, betaine HCL helps to raise acid levels in the stomach when natural levels are deficient.
If you follow the latest health news, it shouldn’t be a shocker that many health problems have origins in an unhealthy gut: autoimmune diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, skin conditions, hormone imbalances and nutrient deficiencies, just to name a few.5
Even if you eat the most exemplary of healthy diets and follow a supremely advantageous supplement routine, if your digestive tract is not up to snuff, you’re increasing your risk of developing a myriad of diseases.
If you’re supplementing with HCL, look for Betaine HCL with Pepsin. You’ll get two essential digestive aids in one dose!
Caution: There are some individuals who do, in fact, produce too much HCL, and taking betaine HCL may aggravate the stomach. If you are one of these individuals with your HCL production switch stuck on HIGH, you may want to abstain from taking HCL supplements and talk to your healthcare professional.
If you experience any sensitivity issues with betaine HCL, try glutamic acid instead to gently raise HCL levels, as it’s a weaker acid than betaine HCL.
Why Can’t I Just Take an Antacid?
It seems like a simple enough option, especially when there are hundreds of OTC and prescription antacids at your disposal. Big Pharma is certainly cashing in on the millions of Americans who suffer from acid reflux and heartburn on a regular basis.
But an antacid is only going to treat the symptoms by suppressing stomach acid secretions. Antacids don’t treat the underlying cause, which you know by now is not enough stomach acid to begin with. By further suppressing HCL output, the body can’t efficiently break down food before it enters the small intestine and it can’t efficiently kill harmful microbes in the digestive tract. Taking more antacids to deal with the persistent symptoms just allows the cycle to repeat and get progressively worse if the real cause is not addressed.
If you find the low level OTC antacids aren’t working to your satisfaction, your physician might prescribe a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) or an H2 blocker, drugs that are designed to reduce stomach acid production.
Clearly not the solution when you already don’t have enough stomach acid.
“Up to 95% of people who think they are suffering from too much stomach acid are actually suffering from the opposite condition. The use of antacids and purple pills then became exactly the wrong treatment to use since they exacerbate the underlying condition while temporarily masking the symptoms,”says Jon Barron. 4
Don’t fall into the trap of automatically thinking that digestive problems like heartburn and acid reflux are caused by too much stomach acid. It’s often the opposite.
Progressive degradation of organ function is a fact of life, and this includes the stomach and its ability to maintain ideal acid levels for proper digestion.
Not producing enough HCL initiates poor dismantling of food, inadequate absorption of nutrients and diminished ability to kill food borne pathogens. If left unattended, these primary symptoms can develop into more serious digestive diseases.
While some people do secrete too much HCL, for most of us, we don’t secrete enough as we age. If you’re part of the majority, try supplementing with betaine HCL before a meal and leave the antacids for the other guys.
- Wright, J.V. (2001). Why stomach acid is good for you. Lanham, MD: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
- Graham, D.Y. (2014). History of helicobacter pylori, duodenal ulcer, gastric ulcer and gastric cancer. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 20(18), 5191-5204. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i18.5191
- Wroblewski, L.E., Peek, R.M., & Wilson, K.T. (2010). Helicobacter pylori and gastric cancer: Factors that modulate disease risk. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 23(4), 713-739. doi:10.1128/CMR.00011-10
- Barron, J. (2007, March 12). Stomach acid & digestion. Retrieved from https://jonbarron.org/article/stomach-acid
- Zhang, Y., Li, S., Gan, R., Zhou, T., Xu, D., & Li, H. (2015). Impacts of gut bacteria on human health and diseases. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 16(4), 7493-7519. doi:10.3390/ijms16047493
*Disclaimer Notice: This information is for educational purposes only and should not be used in the place of advice from a qualified healthcare professional. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Please read full disclaimer here.