Updated: Sep 13, 2020
Low stomach acid (which is medically known as hypochlorhydria) is the underlying cause of many digestive system ailments. But it's not just the digestive system it can affect.
Hypochlorhydria is a commonly overlooked problem with links to many disorders including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD),
inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Celiac Disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and stomach cancer.
Though, because it can lead to nutrient malabsorption its effects can be even wider than just digestive issues and be highly detrimental to one's health.
The main constituent of stomach acid, also known as gastric acid, is hydrochloric acid, which is produced by parietal cells in the gastric glands of the stomach. Producing stomach acid is a complex and energy expensive process.
Why is stomach acid so important?
1. It is needed to digest proteins in our food adequately.
Your body uses protein to build and repair tissues and to make enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and other body chemicals. Hormones and neurotransmitters are important for a stable mood and for regulating organs, such as the brain and those in the gut.
Protein is also an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. So, poor protein digestion can also lead to hair loss and brittle nails, among other things.
Hydrochloric acid is needed to convert the enzyme pepsinogen to pepsin in order to digest proteins. If this doesn't occur low pepsin levels can lead to digestive complaints and low amino acid & protein levels.
Undigested proteins can also cause an immune and inflammatory response if they manage to "leak" through the gaps between the cells in the small intestine.
Asthma, allergies and gallstones are also correlated with low stomach acid.
2. Hydrochloric acid is required to extract vitamin B12 from our food.
In order to absorb vitamin B12 it must be separated from the protein it's attached to. Hydrochloric acid in the stomach is required for this step to occur. After this, vitamin B12 combines with a protein made by the stomach called intrinsic factor, which acts like an escort to bring B12 to the small intestine for absorption into the body.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to issues with energy & red blood cell production, faulty DNA synthesis, and poor brain & nerve function.
Signs and symptoms can include:
Fatigue, tiredness and weakness
Heart palpitations and shortness of breath
Digestive issues such as constipation or diarrhea, gas
Loss of appetite
Nerve problems like numbness or tingling, muscle weakness, and problems walking
Mental health issues like depression, memory loss, or behavioral changes
3. It can prevent other nutrient deficiencies.
Not just a vitamin B12 deficiency can occur, but many other essential nutrients can be depleted due to a break down in gut function, interfering the small intestine's ability to absorb vital nutrients needed for healing, growth, and repair.
Folate and non-heme iron absorption are particularly affected by low stomach acid.
4. Adequate stomach acid is needed to prevent digestive upset & gastroesophageal reflux (GORD)
Constipation, bloating, gas and belching are all common symptoms of low stomach acid. With inadequate acid, food sits in the stomach and putrefies instead of being properly digested.
The pyloric sphincter which holds the stomach contents in until it is ready to move to the intestines, will not open unless the acidity has reached a sufficient level.
Furthermore, the lower oesophageal sphincter at the top of the stomach, will not close unless it senses an adequate acid concentration.
Food can then remain in the stomach longer resulting in indigestion, bloating and reflux of the stomach contents.
(You can read more about the root causes of reflux / GORD here).
5. Gastric acid sterilizes our food and helps to kill any ingested parasites and disease producing microbes.
Stomach acid is a key component of our immune system! Low stomach acid increases our risk of infection to a host of nasty bugs. Including the bacterial infection H. Pylori which then further lowers stomach acid and increases the risk of stomach ulcers and even stomach cancer.
Stomach acid offers protection by eliminating bacteria, viruses and parasites in the stomach.
How do you know if you have low stomach acid?
You're likely to frequently suffer from one of the following signs and symptoms:
Digestive issues like gas, bloating, belching, and indigestion
Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms - constipation and/or diarrhea, abdominal cramping etc
Reflux/GORD or heartburn
Allergies & food intolerances
Dry skin or hair and/or brittle nails
Hair loss in women
Low B12 or iron levels
Nausea while taking supplements
Plus, you can also try the baking soda stomach acid test.
1. First thing in the morning (before eating or drinking), mix 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in 1/2 cup of cold water.
2. Drink the baking soda solution.
3. Set a timer and see how long it takes you to burp. If you have not burped within five minutes, stop timing.
The baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and stomach acid (hydrochloric acid) create a chemical reaction in your stomach. The result of this reaction is carbon dioxide gas, which causes burping. So a burp within three minutes of drinking the baking soda solution may indicate an adequate level of stomach acid. A burp after three minutes (or not at all) may indicate a low level of stomach acid.
What are some factors that can contribute to low stomach acid?
Eating too quickly
Active B vitamin deficiency - especially vitamin B1, B3 and B6
Antacid or Proton Pump inhibitor (PPI) medication e.g. omeprazole, losec
Food sensitivities and allergies
Infection - especially an H. Pylori bacterial infection.
So, low stomach acid can result in nutrient deficiencies, brain and nerve damage through B12 malabsorption, digestive issues and diseases, asthma and allergies, chronic infections, mental health issues and more!
Sounds important to address, doesn't it?
The first step is to check for zinc deficiency using a zinc taste test or serum copper / serum zinc ratio blood test. Depleted zinc levels are a common cause of low stomach acid, along with stress and medication use.
For more natural ways to increase stomach acid, keep an eye out for my next blog article which is coming soon.