Most children and many young adults can usually eat whatever they like without experiencing gastric distress. Unfortunately, the older we get, the less hydrochloric acid (HCl) our stomachs produce. Most people over 40 could benefit from some form of digestive support.
Stomach acidity affects every stage of digestion. It activates pepsin, the enzyme required to digest proteins. It stimulates the gallbladder to release bile, which is needed to emulsify fats. It triggers the release of pancreatic enzymes, which break down proteins, starches and fats. Stomach acidity also creates an unfavorable environment for harmful bacteria and parasites.
When the stomach isn’t acidic enough (hypochlorhydria), the entire digestive process slows down. Proteins are not broken down into their constituent amino acids. Insufficient bile is released causing fats to glob together in the gut, attracting minerals to form insoluble soaps. Pancreatic enzymes are not released in sufficient quantity to break down the food mass into molecules small enough to pass through the intestinal wall, thus hindering absorption. Intestinal immunity suffers because the population of beneficial flora becomes displaced by the putrefactive by-products of incomplete digestion. Colon function and elimination stagnate. Toxins are released in the gut and absorbed from the intestinal tract into the bloodstream.
Symptoms of too little stomach acid include:
- Indigestion within 3 hours after eating
- Abdominal bloating, distension
- Overly full feeling after eating meat
- Loss of former taste or craving for meat
- Excessive gas or belching after meals
- Heartburn or burning sensation in the stomach (believe it or not!)
- Overly tired feeling after eating
- Poorly formed or greasy stools
- Undigested food particles in stools
- Slow growing fingernails and/or ridges on nails
Commercials for antacids have it all wrong! The most frequent cause of indigestion is too little stomach acid, not too much! Without enough HCl, food stays in the stomach for prolonged periods, fermenting and producing excess gas. Taking an antacid alkalizes the stomach contents, causing them to be released into the small intestine. Nothing happens to improve digestion with this. On the contrary! This halts further digestion and merely relocates the symptoms by exchanging stomach gas for intestinal gas. Bile and pancreatic enzymes do not flow in adequate amounts because their presence is only triggered by the ‘acidity’ of the food leaving the stomach. In this case, the acidity has just been eliminated by the antacid.
If HCl levels are very low, the emptying of the stomach is delayed for so long that bile is regurgitated backward from the duodenum into the stomach. Bile is very alkaline, caustic, and irritating to the stomach lining and causes a reflex secretion of HCl to neutralize it. At this point, the person will likely experience a burning sensation, commonly referred to as “acid indigestion”. Taking antacids will relieve the burn, of course, but the stomach only became acidic after the bile had been regurgitated back into it. Had there been enough HCl in the first place when it was needed, no burn would have been experienced later.
By Janice Buckler, BSc, RHN and Owner of Natural Legends Nutritional Consulting