Stomach Acid, Heartburn, and the Dangers of Antacids
When someone says “stomach acid”, what do you think of? The odds are good that your mind goes to heartburn, an upset stomach, eating too much of something spicy, or reaching for the antacids.
But what if I told you that you’re thinking about it all wrong?
The Purpose of Stomach Acid
Most people might think of the stomach simply as the organ that digests their food, and yes, that’s accurate. But the stomach is actually an intricate organ that has direct ties to our brain, our hormones, our immune system, and more.
When the stomach is healthy, it produces hydrochloric acid and other enzymes that break down the food you eat into nutrients that can then be absorbed by the body.
But that acid does so much more than just break down food.
It creates the ideal environment for friendly bacteria to thrive. In other words, it helps keep your gut biome healthy. If there’s too much or too little acid in the stomach, then the helpful bacteria struggle to survive – if you take probiotics, they’re going to struggle to survive if the environment in your stomach isn’t right for them. And on top of that, the wrong balance of acid can allow harmful types of bacteria to grow in your gut, get into your bloodstream, and cause disease.
The presence of acid in the stomach also triggers other organs to function. When you eat, your stomach triggers acid production, and that in turn sends a signal to the pancreas and the gallbladder, two organs responsible for the production of crucial hormones and enzymes. Without that acid production trigger, your pancreas and gallbladder will become much less productive.
And even that simple job of breaking down your food and drink is far more crucial than you might realize. We all know that we should eat healthy - have lots of fruit and veggies, take a multivitamin, and all of that. But if you don’t have enough stomach acid, then your body isn’t getting all of the benefits from that nutritious food. And if you have been prescribed medication, then your body might not be getting the full benefit of it if your stomach acid can’t fully break it down.
When you really look into it, the right amount of stomach acid is absolutely crucial for good health. And you may not even realize that you don’t have enough of it!
Too Little Acid Can Feel Like Too Much
When someone struggles with low stomach acid – or hypochlorhydria – they can experience a wide range of symptoms, and the tricky thing is that most of those symptoms can be caused by multiple unrelated disorders. However, most people with hypochlorhydria do experience one or more of these symptoms:
● Upset stomach
● Bloating and gas
Now, you may ask yourself, if there’s not enough acid in my stomach, why am I feeling that acidic heartburn in my chest and throat? That’s because hypochlorhydria increases the pressure in your abdomen, which forces the lower esophageal sphincter open, which then lets out a small amount of acid into your esophagus. It’s your body’s way of telling you that something’s wrong!
Taking an antacid will help you feel better in the short term - it will neutralize the acid in your esophagus - but in the long term, antacids and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) like Prilosec can lead to chronic low stomach acid and long-term health issues; long-term hypochlorhydria is suspected of causing allergies and immune issues, skin issues, and osteoporosis.
Other symptoms of hypochlorhydria include:
● Undigested food in your stool
● Brittle and/or ridged fingernails
● Anemia (due to iron deficiency)
● Mineral deficiency, including vitamin B-12
● Muscle cramps (due to magnesium and calcium deficiency)
Why is This Happening to Me?
It’s important to determine why you may be experiencing hypochlorhydria, since some of the causes can be counteracted. One of the most common causes is simply age – people 60+ years old experience declining stomach acid production. While we can’t stop the aging process, we can tackle some of the other causes:
1. Stress: Chronic stress is one of the main culprits of hypochlorhydria. While the exact link is uncertain, many health providers believe it has to do with the lower levels of zinc and B vitamins that often appear in people who suffer from chronic stress.
2. Alcohol and Smoking: Both smoking and drinking alcohol interfere with nutrient absorption in the body, which leads to low stomach acid production.
3. Antacid and PPI use: Long-term use of over-the-counter and prescription antacids train the stomach to produce lower and lower amounts of stomach acid.
What Can I Do About It?
The first and best thing you can do is get tested. After all, the symptoms you’re experiencing might be due to another condition, and hypochlorhydria can be easily tested. Your healthcare provider might have you try an at-home test, or might have you come into the clinic for an in-person test of your acid levels and your nutrient levels (which can indicate if your food is being fully digested).
And here’s the great news: if you do have hypochlorhydria, there are multiple ways of treating it!
If you have a more serious case, your healthcare provider might give you a hydrochloric acid supplement to give you a boost. Less severe cases might simply need a daily dose of apple cider vinegar, or the regular use of digestive bitters (a mix of herbal extracts like dandelion, burdock, fennel, and other bitter herbs) before meals. And sometimes, just a change in lifestyle can do the trick! Your healthcare provider will help you find the treatment that will work best.
A final word of advice - if you suspect that you have hypochlorhydria, don’t ignore it. Over the long term, hypochlorhydria can potentially lead to serious nutrient deficiencies, esophageal damage, autoimmune disorders, and more. This is an easy problem to diagnose and treat, so speak up at your next appointment and get tested!