Updated: Dec 7, 2020
A number of years ago, during a time when I really wasn’t feeling well, I decided to get a stool test from a private lab done - and the results shocked me. Despite being on a low-carb, paleo diet, my results showed that I was extremely low in B1, B7, B9 and B12. How could this happen when I was eating so healthily, including lots of meat that are so high in B vitamins?
A lot of us with autoimmune disease suffer from low stomach acid and some signs you have it include constipation, diarrhea, undigested food in stool, acid reflux, gas, bloating, indigestion, belching, skin problems or acne and chronic nutrient deficiencies. In more extreme cases, symptoms like hair loss, brittle nails, dry skin, adrenal fatigue and even autoimmune disease can occur. Many people with autoimmune disease deal with troubling digestive issues such as leaky gut, and low stomach acid can be one of the main contributing factors.
So why is stomach acid so important? Stomach acid is responsible for triggering the action of pepsin, an enzyme that is needed to break down proteins into their smallest components - amino acids and peptides. If the pH of the stomach is not optimal, then nutrients B12, magnesium, calcium, iron, folate and zinc are not absorbed by the body, resulting in health complaints.
The result? You could be eating the most nutritionally dense diet, but if you don’t have enough stomach acid, a lot of these nutrients can go to waste as they won’t be absorbed and used by the body, they’ll just pass on through! With all that undigested food in the gut, it can lead to a condition called ‘leaky gut’, which can contribute to the onset of autoimmune disease.
Another very important role of stomach acid is that at the right pH, it acts as a first line of defense against food-borne microbes. Stomach acid kills bacteria and pathogens in the food we eat, and therefore stops these pathogens from entering the body. Stomach acid also limits the levels of bad bacteria that colonize the digestive system and so helps to maintain a balance of good and bad bacteria, which are so critical to our health.
For those suffering with heartburn or GERD and are taking acid blocking or proton-pump inhibiting drugs, you may be surprised to learn that it could be that you actually have too little stomach acid and not too much! Incredibly, the symptoms of having too much can be the same as having too low, and taking medications that lower stomach acid when you already have chronically low stomach acid can create a real problem.
Research shows that people with autoimmune diseases tend to have low stomach acid, poor digestion and multiple food allergies. Leaky gut is another well-researched environmental contributor to the onset of autoimmunity and can cause a person’s autoimmune symptoms to worsen. Therefore , it is really important that we maintain the correct gastric pH so that the proteins in the food we eat get broken down fully and don’t end up in our bloodstream where they cause inflammation, leaky gut and other problems.
So, how do you know if you have low stomach acid? There is a safe, cheap test you can do at home to test your stomach acid level. This test isn’t foolproof but may be a good indicator. Mix 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in a small cup of cold water first thing in the morning before eating or drinking anything.
After drinking the solution, time how long it takes you to belch. If your stomach is producing adequate amounts of stomach acid you’ll likely belch within two to three minutes. Early and repeated burping may be due to excessive stomach acid unless it is the light burps from swallowing a little air. Any belching after 3 minutes indicates a low acid level. It is often best to repeat the tests a few times.
There are several ways to go about improving low stomach acid naturally. Firstly, I would always advise working with a qualified practitioner. They may advise you to take bitters, which are a natural herb that stimulates the stomach to make more acid. Bitter herbs include dandelion, fennel, ginger, goldenseal, milk thistle and peppermint. Another solution is to take a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice at the beginning of a meal to help acidify the stomach. Or, if you are very low in stomach acid, supplementary HCl tablets may help. If you have serious gastrointestinal irritation or a history of ulcers, you should not add HCl into your supplement regimen without the guidance and support of a qualified practitioner. Some people need more enzymes and gut healing herbs and nutrients first before any HCl supplementation is introduced.
I still take HCl supplements, especially when I have a big meal containing lots of protein. But, I believe that if you have low stomach acid, it’s so important to get it back into balance in conjunction with a nourishing diet, in order for the body to get all the nutrients it needs. Once the body has these vital nutrients, it is so intelligent, that it knows exactly what to do with them in order to heal your body. Remember the old adage “You are what you eat”, well it’s more accurate to say, “You are what you eat, digest, assimilate, absorb, and utilise!”
Written by Kylie Hendrikse