Many people think of stomach acid as a nuisance that causes acid reflux, heartburn, ulcers, and GERD. In fact, an estimated 20% of Americans suffer from Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD); that’s nearly 67 million Americans!
However, I’m here to tell you that stomach acid is NOT the villain we all think it is! In reality, the actual villain is the exact opposite… inadequate, low levels of stomach acid!
In my previous article, I covered how acid reflux is often the result of LOW stomach acid, which causes the lower esophageal sphincter between the stomach and esophagus to remain open, allowing stomach acid to enter into the esophagus. Surprising, right?
The Importance of Stomach Acid
An adequate amount of stomach acid is absolutely vital for strong, healthy digestion. Low stomach acid, on the other hand, is synonymous with weak digestion which results in gas, bloating, abdominal pain, feelings of indigestion, abnormal bowel movements, and often acid reflux.
Stomach acid protects against infections by killing unwanted pathogens that could otherwise lead to an infection or imbalanced gut microflora. In fact, proton pump inhibitor use, which results in low stomach acid, is associated with increased risk of C. Difficile infections and community-acquired pneumonia.
Low stomach acid also decreases the absorption of proteins, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are necessary for muscle function and bone density. As a result, low stomach acid can contribute to frailty in elderly people.
What Lowers Stomach Acid?
Stomach acid tends to decrease with age. In order to maintain adequate levels of stomach acid, it is important to know what you may be working against. As I discussed in my previous article, proton pump inhibitors are extremely powerful at lowering stomach acid.
Another contributor to low stomach acid can be the presence of Heliobacter Pylori, a bacteria that initially reduces stomach acid, but eventually can lead to gastric ulcers. According to PubMed:
“H. Pylori infection can be diagnosed in 90-100% of duodenal ulcer patients and in 60-100% of gastric ulcer patients…. After eradication of the [H. Pylori] infection, the risk of recurrence of ulcer disease is reduced to below 10% for gastric ulcer disease and to approximately 0% for duodenal ulcer disease.”
If you have a history of an ulcer, you should definitely be tested for H. Pylori. Other diagnoses that are related to low stomach acid include hypothyroidism and hiatal hernias.
Additionally, an inflammatory diet, chronic infections, environmental toxins, medications, stress, and food intolerances all contribute to digestive inflammation and lowered stomach acid.
Finally… How to Strengthen Digestion!
- Practice mindfulness around and during meals. Try taking 5 slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth before beginning your meal. Try offering gratitude for your meal before eating. Be sure to pay full attention to your food while eating and avoid any distractions like your phone, television, etc.
- Eat slowly and chew your food excessively!!!
- Space out your meals by at least 3-4 hours and avoid snacking between meals to allow for complete digestion and gastric emptying. It’s also important to avoid eating within 3 hours of bedtime to allow for full digestion before going to sleep.
- Stay hydrated between meals, but avoid drinking beverages during your meals or shortly before or after meals. Water, milk, and many other beverages can dilute your stomach acid and weaken digestion.
- Follow simple food combining (or “food layering”) practices. This includes eating easily digestible foods first such as starches and other softer, cooked foods followed by harder to digest foods such as raw vegetables and meat. If eating fruit, try eating it alone or at least 20 minutes before a meal rather than during or after the meal.
- Try eliminating dairy and/or gluten for 4-6 weeks. These are common food sensitivities that can lead to chronic inflammation in the gut. Better yet, consider an at-home food sensitivity test to help you identify any unknown food sensitivities that may be contributing to inflammation.
- Try taking digestive bitters about 20 minutes before meals to help get your digestive juices flowing. If you have trouble remembering to do this before meals, you could take digestive enzymes with your meals instead; these won’t necessarily help to increase acid production, but they will help your body break down and digest the meal.
- Consider supplementing with Betaine HCl during meals to increase stomach acid levels. While some doctors suggest a more aggressive approach, Dr. Ruscio suggests taking just 1-3 capsules with meals.
- Identify and rebalance any underlying gut problems (such as H. Pylori as mentioned previously) by working with a functional medicine doctor or an experienced integrative health practitioner. At-home functional medicine lab testing can be extremely helpful to check for imbalances of yeast, bacteria, and other culprits that can lead to low stomach acid. The use of probiotics and other supplementation to support the health and balance of your digestive system may be warranted.
- Establish a plan with your doctor or licensed health care provider to wean off of your acid blocking drugs!
Tips by the Sixty and Me Community
Here are some BONUS tips that have been offered by Sixty and Me readers themselves that they have found to help them personally!
- Eat an early dinner and don’t eat after dinner.
- Sleep with the upper body elevated.
- Cut out fruit juices, bananas, and commercial yogurt with fruit.
- Eat 2 spoons of grated raw red skin/yellow inside potato each morning.
- Drink baking soda and water.
- Eat Manuka honey, sip on slippery elm tea, and chew fennel seeds.
- Stay active.
- Take 1 powdered ginger capsule daily.
- Drink ¼ cup of Kevita fermented coconut water when experiencing acid reflux symptoms.
- Chew gum after meals.
- Cut out all alcohol.
- Mix 3 tbsp. of apple cider vinegar in a glass with 1 tsp. honey, then fill the glass with water and sip with a straw throughout the day.
- Avoid onions, tomatoes, and citrus fruits.
- Consume a few papaya tablets after meals as needed.
- Drink 2 tbsp. of apple cider vinegar (diluted) before bed and before breakfast.
- Drink 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar in small glass of blueberry and pomegranate juice.
- Take digestive enzymes before AND after meals until reflux resolves.
Let’s Have a Conversation:
Have you tried any of the 10 digestive strengthening tips provided in this article or any of the tips provided by other Sixty and Me readers? Did they help to strengthen your digestion and improve your symptoms? What else have you found to be helpful? Did your doctor help you wean off of your acid blocking medications?