The Dangers of Low Stomach Acid
If you suffer from bloating, gas, indigestion, heartburn and a host of other food related digestive issues (including diarrhea and constipation), you could be suffering from low stomach acid. If you are over forty years of age, there is a forty percent chance that you do.
Most likely you have at one time or another taken an antacid or an acid-blocking medication before or after your meal to help with your suffering. If this is the case, you are doing exactly the opposite of what your body needs to alleviate the effects of low stomach acid.
As strange as it sounds, the symptoms of low stomach acid are virtually the same as the symptoms of an overproduction of stomach acid. The treatment, however, is entirely different. In order to feel better, your stomach needs to produce more acid, not less.
Low Stomach Acid (Hypochlorhydria) Symptoms
Low stomach acid is a digestive disorder in which there is a low level of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Also known as hypochlorhydria, gastric acidity reduced, hypohydrochloria, and achlorhydria.
Low Acid Symptoms
How Low Stomach Acid Wreaks Digestive Havoc
Since our entire digestive process depends upon food being doused with a healthy amount of hydrochloric acid (HCL) when it gets to the stomach, it is difficult to exaggerate the potentially catastrophic results of a condition marked by an abnormally small amount of stomach acid.
Without HCL, the digestion of protein, carbohydrates, and fat cannot be properly completed. The stomach needs hydrochloric acid in order to protect the stomach from bacterial and fungal overgrowth (bacteria and fungus cannot thrive in an acidic environment). Hydrochloric acid also helps the body to properly absorb essential vitamins and minerals.
The presence of undigested food in the small intestine and colon can wreak digestive havoc by causing an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, which in turn produces toxins that are absorbed by the liver. This internal warfare puts a terrible strain on one of our most vital organs, forcing the liver to work twice as hard in order to detoxify itself.
There is often a long transit time with low stomach acid, and we know that the longer bacteria sits inside us, the more rapidly they reproduce. Toxins are produced and then absorbed by the liver.
Regardless of how well you eat, poor digestion and malabsorption of nutrients is the end result of low stomach acid. Without adequate nourishment, you will be a target for infectious and degenerative diseases.
In addition, a toxic condition known as dysbiosis can result, leaving the sufferer with fatigue, gas, headaches, hypertension, insomnia, irritation, muscle aches and pain, personality changes, and many other problems.
Diseases Associated with Low Stomach Acid
A lot of what we eat contains bacteria. Normally, stomach acid kills harmful bacteria, working to keep diseases at bay. People with low stomach acid have a higher than average incidence of illness because harmful bacteria ends up in their small intestine, rather than being killed off by HCL in their stomachs.
Often, without knowing why, people with low stomach acid simply never feel good. This is hardly surprising since many health problems are associated with low stomach acid.
Conditions Linked to Low Stomach Acid include:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Chronic candida
- Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
- Chronic hepatitis
- Chronic hives
- Dry skin
- Gallbladder disease
- Gastrointestinal (GI) infections and parasites
- Reduced night vision
- Rheumatic arthritis
- Thyroid disorders
- Type I and II diabetes
- Vitiligo (a skin disorder characterized by white patches or spots)
- Weakened hair, nails, and skin
What Causes Low Stomach Acid?
Aging is one of the primary causes of low stomach acid. However, adrenal fatigue, alcohol consumption, bacterial infection, and chronic stress are also associated with this condition.
Low stomach Acid Testing
Low stomach acid has a history of not being taken seriously by the medical community. As a result, it is an often misdiagnosed and frequently under-diagnosed condition.
Sometimes low stomach acid is simply left untreated; in other instances, the sufferer is prescribed copious amounts of antacids, in effect treating their symptoms as though they had too much HCL, rather than too little.
Accurate testing is available. The Heidelberg Gastric Analysis test is a precise, if somewhat expensive, test that takes between one and two hours to complete.
The patient swallows a vitamin-sized capsule containing a pH meter and radio transmitter. Next, a bicarbonate of soda solution is drunk in order to stimulate the release of stomach acid. Fluctuations in pH levels are transmitted to a receiver, and then graphed. The capsule is excreted normally.
Accurate testing is vital with low stomach acid as this digestive problem can be confused with gastric ulcers and hyperacidity, conditions associated with too much HCL in the stomach.
Typically, one will notice indigestion and discomfort immediately following a meal with low stomach acid and will notice discomfort 1-6 hours after a meal with an overproduction of acid (even waking one in the night.)
Some home testing can also be done at your own risk...If you have tried antacids and acid-blocking medications, and they don't seem to work for you, try drinking one to two tablespoons of pure apple cider vinegar (or mix it with a small amount of water in order to swallow) when you are suffering from indigestion. If this soothes your indigestion, you most probably have low stomach acid.
Treating Low Stomach Acid
Once a diagnosis has been made, you may elect to tackle low stomach acid with a multi-pronged approach.
- Betaine HCL supplements containing thirty or forty milligrams of pepsin are highly encouraged.1 When taken with meals, betaine can help produce stomach acid, alleviating the immediate issue. Long-term use of betaine can help your stomach produce more stomach acid on its own.
- In addition to supplements, incorporating foods containing betaine into your diet can help your body produce more stomach acid. Dietary sources of betaine include beets, broccoli, spinach, and inexpensive wines.2 People who've suffered for years with low stomach acid have been known to have immediate, life changing results with betaine HCL.
- Dieticians, nutritionists and many naturopaths recommend everyone over the age of forty take a digestive enzyme supplement on a daily basis. For greater overall digestion, digestive enzyme supplements – taken with meals – are recommended. Choose a digestive enzyme that includes betaine HCL, to maximum effectiveness.
- When using antibiotics or while experiencing digestive disruptions such as low stomach acid, probiotic supplements create a healthy environment within the GI tract. A high quality intestinal flora replacement can assist in treating digestive disorders and intestinal yeast infections (Candida), and may help your body to resist the myriad of diseases caused by harmful bacteria.3
- Supplementary, biweekly intramuscular injections of vitamin B12 for a three-week period is often medically recommended; consult your health care provider.
- Ginger is a classic tonic for the digestive tract. It stimulates digestion and keeps the intestinal muscles toned, a key factor in speeding up transit time. Ginger is also recommended for fighting parasites such as the roundworm and the blood fluke.
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1. Ron Kennedy, MD, "Hypochlorhydria," http://www.medical-library.net/content/view/177/9/ (accessed August 21, 2007).
2. University of Maryland Medical Center, "Betaine / Trimethylglycine," http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/betaine-000287.htm (accessed August 21, 2007).
3. David G. Young, ND, "Food Allergies – Medical Considerations," (accessed August 21, 2007).