Most people are familiar with antacid medication for heartburn or indigestion, and assume that stomach acidity is bad for you and must be decreased.
The opposite is actually true and, in the majority of cases, most people with digestive problems have low hydrochloric acid or HCl.
If you have a tendency to burp or you feel bloated straight after meals, you may be suffering from low levels of stomach acid. Stomach acid gradually decreases as we age and is also reduced by over-the-counter antacids or proton pump inhibitors. This is why, generally speaking, elderly people prefer starchy, sugary snacks like biscuits and cakes – their low levels of stomach acid make it hard for them to digest healthy protein foods.
Contrary to popular belief, having strong stomach acid is really beneficial for our health.
Before we learn how to increase stomach acid naturally, let’s find out why it’s so important to have good levels.
What is the function of hydrochloric acid?
HCl is secreted by the stomach walls and is essential for proper digestion. Let’s have a look at the main beneficial function of low stomach acid:
- It activates pepsin enzymes that starts to digest protein in the stomach.
- The stomach slowly empties its content, a thick, acid mass called chyme, into the small intestine. The low pH of chyme triggers the release of pancreatic juices, a mixture of bicarbonate, water, salts and the enzymes lipase (to digest fats), amylase (to digest carbohydrates) and the proteases trypsin, chemotrypsin and carboxypeptidase, as well as ribonuclease and deoxyribonuclease to break down RNA and DNA from foods.
- It stimulates bile production by the liver and its release by the gallbladder into the small intestine to emulsify fats and help increase their surface area for better digestion by pancreatic lipase.
- It kills bacteria and pathogens in food.
- It is essential for the proper absorption of certain vitamins and minerals.
Low hydrochloric acid leads to a lack of building blocks to repair our cells, make healthy hormones and neurotransmitters to keep us happy and balanced.
What are the symptoms of low hydrochloric acid?
- Bloating, especially soon after meals
- Heartburn or reflux (though some reflux can also be caused by hyperacidity)
- Gastritis (especially secondary to H Pylori infection)
- Undigested food in stool
- Flatulence, especially the smelly kind
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Bacterial or parasitic infections
- Colonic dysbiosis
- Yeast overgrowth
- Food intolerances
- Leaky gut
- Bad breath
- B12, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc deficiency
- Poor hair, teeth and nails
- High triglycerides and cholesterol
- Estrogen dominance and PMS
Reduced hydrochloric acid has been associated with all the above signs and symptoms. It doesn’t mean it’s the only cause of these conditions but restoring balanced HCl levels should be part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
What causes low hydrochloric acid?
- High sugar diet
- Poor protein intake
- Low zinc status
- Eating on the run
- Proton pump inhibitors
- H2 blockers
- Over the counter antacid medication
How do I find out if I have low hydrochloric acid?
If you have one or more of the symptoms listed above, it is very likely that your levels of HCl are suboptimal.
The most accurate way to find out if you have low HCl is the Heidelberg test or Gastric Acid Function test, which your GP can prescribe. However, as your doctor is more likely to think that your indigestion or reflux is caused by excess acid, he’s most probably not going to send you off for this test.
There is a simple home test you can do yourself. It is not 100% accurate but it will give you a fair indication of your levels of stomach acid.
First thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, drink a glass of water with a 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda (choose aluminium free) dissolved in it, then time up to five minutes. If you burp within 2-3 minutes you have enough stomach acid; if you burp straight away you have too much and beyond 4 minutes, too little.
How to increase stomach acid naturally
There are various, natural ways to naturally improve HCl and upper digestive function. None of the following are suitable if you suffer from gastritis or ulcers:
Bitter herbs such as gentian, globe artichoke, hops and dandelion root are some of the safest and most effective herbs at stimulating gastric acid. Ginger is also a great digestive stimulant.
They work most effectively in tincture form so they’re best obtained from a qualified herbalist or naturopath.
If you have only access to the dried herbs, make an infusion of pure dandelion root (check the ingredients as often if you buy this in granule form they add sugar and dairy) – 1 tsp per cup and drink ½ cup, warm, 20 minutes before meals.
A simple Ayurvedic remedy is to slowly chew on a thin slice of fresh ginger with a pinch of rock salt 5-10 minutes before meals.
Supplement with betaine hydrochloride and pepsin. This supplement is available in health food shops. Take one tablet with the first mouthful of food and increase the dose by one extra tablet at each subsequent meal until you feel a burning sensation in your stomach.
At the next meal, drop back to the previous dose as you’ve identified the correct amount to supplement. If you start experiencing a burning sensation again, reduce the number of tablets once more. This supplement will actually increase your own production of hydrochloric acid over time.
It is recommended to supplement for 2-3 months. You must not take this if you suffer from gastritis or ulcers unless under the supervision of an experienced clinician.
Apple cider vinegar or lemon: these are very helpful in the short term to acidify your stomach environment. They’re best sipped with meals or right at the beginning of a meal. 1-2 tsp apple cider vinegar or lemon juice in a small glass of water.
Apple cider vinegar and lemon are both very acidic and in the long term they can damage the enamel on your teeth. To minimise this, sip them through a straw.
Zinc is necessary to produce carbonic anhydrase, an enzyme involved in gastric acid production.
Avoid drinking large amounts of water with meals as this will dilute your gastric juices. Swap the water for gelatine and mineral-rich home-made bone broth. The gelatine in it stimulates digestive juices and helps with protein digestion.
Eat the protein portion of the meal first. Amino acids (the building blocks of protein) stimulate gastric acid release.
Eat in a peaceful, stress-free environment, enjoying tasty food. The smell and anticipation of food triggers gastric acid release.
Chew your food thoroughly as this primes your stomach for digestion.
Start your meal with a small salad of bitter leaves such as rocket, dandelion leaves from the garden or radicchio.
Always add some acid to your meals in the form of lemon or vinaigrettes and fermented vegetables.