In a previous blog, I share with you that GERD, bloating, and general gastro-intestinal discomfort is frequently treated by suppressing stomach acid production using either prescribed or over-the-counter medication for example protein-pump inhibitors such as Nexium® or Prilosec®, H2 receptor blockers such as Zantac® or Pepcid®, or even pain-killers such as aspirin or ibuprofen. The theory being that there is too much stomach acid which results in the acid backing up and forcing itself into the upper stomach and into the esophagus.
The fact is that as we age, our bodies produce less stomach acid, not more and, in reality, the stomach acid is entering the esophagus because it is taking the body longer to empty the stomach due to the decreased stomach acid. Because of this, the mix of food and digestive juices, known as chyme, starts to ferment which causes gases to build up and there is pressure put on the lower esophageal sphincter which is then forced open, allowing what little stomach acid there is to enter the esophagus and cause that uncomfortable burning sensation.
Stomach acid is made primarily from hydrochloric acid. Stomach acid is critical in breaking down proteins, protecting us from orally ingested bacteria, preventing the bacteria and yeast in our gut from overgrowing which leads to problems such as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), encourages the flow of bile and enzymes from the pancreas that help us to further digest food, and helps us absorb various nutrients that are key to good health including beta-carotene, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. Low stomach acid, also known as hypochlorhydria, will eventually lead to such detrimental problems as ulcers, osteoporosis, low energy, indigestion, depression, a weakened immune system, an imbalance in the gut bacteria, food sensitivities, allergies, auto-immune diseases, or arthritis.
The importance of stomach acid cannot be understated.
Hydrochloric acid was routinely prescribed for over a 100 years to treat various conditions but the decline of its use began around 1920 when poorly designed studies convinced the medical establishment that hydrochloric acid replacement was not necessary.
Some in the medical establishment and many holistic practitioners are realizing that many of today’s ailments are problems with digestion and absorption into the cells. Increasing stomach acid will aid in properly breaking down the food so that the nutrients may be absorbed and the body can function optimally.
Ways of increasing stomach acid include:
- Reducing sugar and processed foods in our diet.
- Eating healthy fermented foods and drinks such as refrigerated sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, miso, kefir, or kombucha.
- Helping our body process food through the use of digestive enzymes, such as Enzymedica’s Digest Gold.
- Hydrochloric betain which is a supplement that is to be taken in the middle of a meal to replace missing stomach acid. Depending on the amount of protein in a meal, up to 8 tablets may be necessary to properly digest the meal. NOTE: This supplement is actually used to help people determine if they actually have low stomach acid.
I am not saying to never use a stomach acid suppressing medication. There are definitely times when it is required. However, these medications are not designed to be used for extended periods of time and when they are prescribed as a long term solutions, signs of hypochlorhydria appear.
If you have had low stomach acid for an extended period of time, the stomach lining may have thinned and that should be addressed before trying to increase the stomach acid. Certain medications such as steroids and NSAIDS such as aspirin or ibuprofen may also thin the mucosal layer and, by increasing stomach acid, may lead to an increased risk of gastritis or GI bleeding.
Just because a medication is allowed to be sold over-the-counter, it does not mean that it is safe to use!
A Functional Medicine Practitioner can help you address damage caused extended stomach acid suppression.
Missy Cohen, MPH, Certified Functional Medicine Health Coach is available for individual consults at Just Breathe in Westborough, Massachusetts by phone or in person.
- “Implications of Low Stomach Acid: An Update,” Drs. Banoo H. and Nusrat N. , RAMA Univ. J. Med Sci 2016;2(2): 16 – 26