Thanks to antacid commercials you’ve probably only heard scary things about stomach acid. You may even think of it as something you need to get rid of if you want to feel wonderful.
Actually the opposite is true. You need stomach acid, along with bile and digestive enzymes, to properly digest your food. And remember:
You aren’t what you eat, you’re what you digest.
If at any point during digestion you don’t have enough acid, bile, and digestive enzymes, your body will have to finish breaking down your food through rotting and fermentation. That sounds gross enough. Unfortunately, these processes also create chemical reactions and byproducts, which you experience as bloating, gas, upset stomach, nausea, bad breath, and other unpleasantness.
If you truly want to feel fabulous, digestion is what you want to optimize!
Reflux, heartburn, + GERD are often caused by low stomach acid
First let’s talk terms. Reflux is when acid backs up from your stomach into your lower esophagus. If this happens, the burning sensation you feel is described as heartburn. If your symptoms worsen in either length of time, frequency, and/or severity, you could be diagnosed with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Conventional medicine sees reflux and GERD as relating to excess stomach acid that needs to be treated with antacids, H-2 receptor blockers, or PPIs (proton pump inhibitors), along with the dietary advice to avoid “known” triggers such as fried foods, fatty foods, chocolate, peppermint, alcohol, and nicotine.
But what if the problem isn’t too much stomach acid but not enough? This most likely goes against everything you’ve been taught. While there are many different causes of reflux, it appears that it’s very rarely due to too much acid.
Let’s look closer at what’s going on. Your esophagus is a tube connecting your throat to your stomach. There’s a valve at the bottom of it, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). When you swallow, it opens to let food into your stomach. The acid in your stomach then triggers the valve to close so the acidified food doesn’t back up into your esophagus and burn it.
Conversely, and this is the important part, if you don’t make enough acid, your LES stays open. Now anything that causes intra-abdominal pressure, such as bloating, overeating, bending over, or lying down, can push your undigested food up through the LES and into your esophagus. Most likely there was at least some acid mixed in with that food. Any acid in the esophagus is going to burn, even if it’s a very small amount. Furthermore, the food in your stomach also got mixed with digestive enzymes, some of which break down protein. When these back up with your food, they can begin to break down your esophagus, which is also made of protein.
There’s the big oops.
Why you don’t have enough stomach acid
I mean, really! If this is so important why isn’t your body doing its part?
The short answer: Modern life.
There are so many reasons why your stomach wouldn’t produce enough acid, but the most common ones are food allergies and/or sensitivities, infections, chronic illness, stress, high sugar intake, and zinc deficiency. (See what I meant by the short answer?)
Another reason you may have low stomach acid is that you regularly take antacids or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). In case you didn’t know how PPIs work, the name refers to your body’s hydrogen proton pump. Hydrogen is necessary to produce stomach acid, so by inhibiting this you also inhibit the production of acid.
What if you’ve found relief with antacids, etc.?
Symptoms aren’t the same as root causes. If you’ve popped a Tums and felt better, you put a bandage on your symptoms, but you weren’t necessarily treating the real problem. In fact, it’s worse than that. If you have low stomach acid levels to begin with, you’re suppressing your symptoms at the expense of these levels, which will only make your problem worse over time. That’s why you have to continue taking the meds, often in increasing amounts.
There are real ways to address the underlying problem. But first you need to have an idea of where your stomach acid levels are at now.
Try the Super-Simple Self Test for Stomach Acid
If you have serious concerns about your stomach acid levels, please talk to your doctor about medical testing. This self-test simply gives you an idea of what you’re working with. It’s not dangerous to try, though, so why not?
Do this first thing in the morning before you’ve had anything to eat or drink. Setting things up the night before is helpful (especially if you’re not a clear thinker first thing in the morning). Have a measuring cup, drinking glass, baking soda, and a timer waiting for you.
Place ¼ teaspoon baking soda in 4 ounces of water. Stir about 30 seconds until it dissolves. Get your timer ready.
Drink it all and immediately start your timer.
See how much time passes before you burp. If you make enough stomach acid, you’ll generally burp within two to three minutes. If it takes longer than that, you most likely have low levels of stomach acid.
Stop the timer at five minutes if you haven’t burped yet. If this is the case, you most likely have very low levels of stomach acid.
I’m eager to hear your results! I’ll admit that I didn’t burp for well past the five-minute mark when I first took this test. I truly didn’t expect that my stomach acid levels were so in need of boosting. Thankfully I don’t have any reflux symptoms and no antacid-habit to break.
If your levels appear low, too, there are ways you can help bring them back up. Keep checking back for more ideas about optimizing your digestion—and always feel free to contact me with questions!