Your stomach is an often neglected part of your digestive system. Maybe to you, it’s just a pouch, which when full tells you to stop eating. Burp! Sound right? I hope not. Your stomach does more than just that. It secretes an all too important acid called gastric acid. Chemically speaking, gastric acid is also referred to as hydrochloric acid (HCl). What’s so special about your stomach acid? Hmm…Let’s count the them…quickly.
- 1. Hydrochloric acid wakes up (activates) the sleeping gastric enzyme, pepsinogen. When pepsinogen wakes up, it becomes the alert and active pepsin, ready to break proteins down to polypeptides (smaller groups). When pepsin wakes up, other digestive enzymes follow.
- 2. A sufficient level of stomach acid signals the gateway (sphincter) between your oesophagus and stomach to close. When the gateway closes, your stomach is then able to push your food into the first part of your small intestine. This mechanism allows your stomach to empty properly and completely. If the stomach fails to close this gateway because of insufficient stomach acid, heartburn can result. Food and stomach acid can regurgitate or move back into the lower oesophagus, thereby damaging it over time. Ouch!
- 3. Not everything that you eat is completely devoid of viruses, fungi and bacteria. HCl is strong enough to kill these little critters which may be present in the food you swallowed. If these critters get through your stomach, they could open a carnival of inflammation or infections. One bacteria which can wreck havoc in your stomach is Helicobacter pylori.
- 4. Calcium, zinc, copper, iron, magnesium, folic acid and selenium are some examples of micronutrients that need an acidic environment so they can be absorbed in your intestinal tract. Without sufficient stomach acid, deficiencies of these micronutrients could be a consequence.
- 5. Vitamin B12 also requires an acidic environment for it to be absorbed. There are two sources of vitamin B12; diet (primarily animal products) and bacteria. Beneficial bacteria in your large intestine are able to make a small amount of vitamin B12. The rest of your requirements should be obtained from your diet. However, if you can’t produce enough stomach acid, you will not be able to absorb enough vitamin B12 from your food.
In essence, you need adequate levels of this acid to perform the functions mentioned above. Too little can lead to hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid levels) and your food ends up only partially digested (which is difficult to absorb nutrients from) and overflowing with bacteria.
Too much can readily bore a hole through your stomach (stomach ulcers) or produce heartburn. You just need the right amount of HCl to do the job.
Note: Just to clarify dear readers, your stomach acid is also composed of other stuff like sodium chloride and potassium chloride in addition to HCl. It’s just that HCl’s functions and popularity overshadow the others. That’s why the chemical term HCl became interchangeable with stomach acid or gastric acid.
What are the causes of hypochlorhydria?
- 1. Most of us live in a world of instant gratification. Whenever we feel a burning sensation in the upper stomach region, we demand immediate and overpowering relief brought about by antacids and proton pump inhibitors. We become dependent on them instead of finding out the exact cause of the heartburn.Stomach acid is basically made up of hydrogen ions (H+). They are pumped into your stomach by proton pumps that sit in the lining of the stomach when hydrogen is required. Proton pump inhibitors are drugs that block the release of these hydrogen ions therefore suppressing the production of stomach acid. Antacids are medications which coat the surface of your gastrointestinal tract with an alkaline fluid that neutralises stomach acid.Both medications are indicated for excess stomach acid. However in many cases, symptoms of reflux and heartburn are actually caused by stomach acid being too low rather than too high. Imagine if your stomach pain was caused by insufficient levels of stomach acid and you’re being prescribed antacids and proton pump inhibitors. Not a pleasant feeling. As you can see these medications can actually be a contributor to hypochlorhydria.
- 2. Leaky gut syndrome. Most medical doctors have a hard time accepting and digesting (excuse the pun) this medical condition.Relating leaky gut syndrome to hypochlorhydria, hydrogen ions that are pumped into the lumen of your stomach can escape back into the bloodstream. This leaking usually happens because of an underlying disease process troubling the lining of your stomach. Disease processes such as food allergies, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome cause inflammation which can lead to a leaky lining.
- 3. Weight loss surgery like stomach stapling can mess with your stomach’s physiology resulting in the production of less stomach acid.
- 4. An infection with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori has been found to cause low stomach acid in some individuals. This harmful microorganism has also been linked to gastritis infections and duodenal ulcers.
Do you have the following symptoms?
Note: Its important to visit your healthcare practitioner to rule out other more serious causes as these symptoms can also occur with other conditions.
If these symptoms sound familiar, why not try out this simple home test used to determine if you have low stomach acid.
Betaine HCL Test for Low Stomach Acid:
Take 1 capsule of Betaine HCL half way through a protein rich meal (not a snack, a full meal). Finish eating and observe how you feel. You can experience one of two things:
- If you experience burning or indigestion you have plenty of stomach acid and don’t need to take extra HCL.
- If you don’t notice anything, i.e. your digestion feels normal then you most likely have low stomach acid and would benefit from taking a betaine HCL supplement.
Its a good idea to try this test several times on different days as there may be other variables affecting the outcome. A similar test can be completed using 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or lemon juice instead.
To work out how much betaine HCL to take with each meal. Start with 1 capsule mid-meal as described above and increase by one capsule each day until you experience a burning sensation. Then reduce by one capsule – this is your maintenance dose. Please note that your dose may need to be adjusted as your body starts to balance out. In addition, if you eat a meal without much protein, take half the normal dose.
This test is particularly useful because of today’s over-prescribing of medications such as antacids and proton pump inhibitors for stomach pains and reflux. Also our modern processed-food diets are much more demanding on our digestive function. Why not give your gut a helping hand by staying clear of that junk food. Check out our Article on Digestive Enzymes to find out how age affects your digestive health.