Is a Deficiency in this Corrosive Acid Wreaking Havoc in Your Body?
Many of us likely only think about stomach acid when something is wrong: reflux, heartburn, indigestion, and a reach into the medicine cabinet for something to tame the discomfort. It’s often around this time that we may blame our stomachs for producing too much acid.
However, this perception could not be further from the truth. The reality is, strong stomach acid is not only critical for the body to function, but it is incredibly rare for someone to have too much stomach acid. While the stomach has a very thick mucus layer to prevent it from digesting itself, the esophagus, where the effects of reflux are felt, is not lined with as nearly a thick layer of mucus because acid doesn’t belong there. So reflux is really a case of acid in an unexpected place. And this goes alongside another shocking truth: Most reflux sufferers have way too little of this acidic juice.
Mind boggling, I know. You’re suffering from acid because you have too little acid, and what acid you do have is partially escaping the stomach.
And it’s not only about quantity. Often stomach acid in reflux sufferers is actually too alkaline as well.
Too little, too alkaline is a huge problem because of what stomach acid does for the body: It kicks off the digestive process for proteins, B12, folate, and minerals; helps release other digestive secretions downstream for proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins, and minerals; and sanitizes our food from pathogens, among other things.
How low stomach acid drives reflux
Low stomach acid begets more low stomach acid.
Stomach acid serves numerous purposes, one of which being to help absorb minerals such as zinc and magnesium. But the kicker is that zinc is required to form stomach acid. If you can’t absorb zinc, you can’t make more stomach acid.
Keeping stomach acid in the stomach requires good Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES) functioning
Because stomach acid is quite damaging to tissue (except for inside the stomach, where there is a very thick mucus lining), the body uses sphincters, or muscular rings, to keep acid from escaping. When these sphincters become loose, acid can gurgle back up into the esophagus through the LES, which causes painful burning symptoms and reflux. As a muscle, the LES requires magnesium to aid in contractions, but without adequate stomach acid, magnesium is hard to absorb and utilize. Other things that negatively impact the LES? Diet: high in processed foods and sugars, stress, and acidic foods.
Slowed stomach emptying
The level of acid signals downstream to allow the stomach to empty its contents into the small intestines to continue on the digestive journey. Inadequate stomach acid decreases the speed at which the stomach empties, which can result in bloating and fullness after a meal, as well as reflux.
Your body doesn’t like partially digested food
Stomach acid is responsible for kicking off the process of protein breakdown. When we experience food sensitivities, our immune system is responding to proteins that haven’t been well broken down, often because of a stomach acid issue (and also poor chewing). One of the ways the body can respond to a food it has decided it does not like is with reflux.
Microbial overgrowths in the small intestines
Remember stomach acid’s role in sanitizing food and breaking it down well, and allowing for absorption of magnesium? Acid also sets the pH for the rest of the digestive tract, which triggers a cascade of digestive secretions. Poorly functioning sphincters (low magnesium!) lower in the digestive tract allow microbes to migrate up into the small intestines, and suboptimal acid allows for partially digested food to feed these microbes. (“Yum!”, they say, “Smorgasbord of carbs and fats delivered right to my door!”) These microbes create gaseous byproducts that push upwards, causing pressure, belching, and reflux, among other issues.
We can prioritize digestion, or we can prioritize fleeing from a tiger. Many Americans choose the tiger. We live in a state of chronic stress, and stress suppresses digestive secretions, including stomach acid. Some people even experience reflux directly when they’re stressed out.
Chugging beverages during meals
It’s one thing to go to the effort of making stomach acid, and another to completely dilute it by drinking large quantities of liquids during meals.
Poor eating hygiene
Alongside high stress comes rushed eating habits. Eating in the car, in front of the TV, rushed in between meetings – these don’t beget proper digestive secretions.
How to have more stomach acid
Practice mindfulness before meals. Take a couple deep breaths. Look at your plate and engage the senses: Note the colors and plating, smell the herbs and spices, imagine what it will taste and feel like once you take your first bite. This will help stimulate digestive secretions.
Take the time to eat. You can read more about eating hygiene here.
Sip your beverage, and limit it to no more than 8 oz at a meal. Liquid should be used to support swallowing well-chewed food, not to push down big chunks of partially chewed food. It should also be used to clear your palate in between eating different flavors. Get the rest of your rehydration needs met outside of mealtime, starting with when you first wake.
Put some apple cider vinegar or digestive bitters in water before a meal, or supplement with Betaine HCl with Pepsin (note: do NOT do this if you have an active H. pylori infection). This will help acidify the stomach and increase digestive secretions respectively, pull more zinc and magnesium out of your food, and start to correct some nutrient imbalances.
Address any thyroid issues, as this impacts stomach acid release as well. You can read more about thyroid assessment here.
Address known H. pylori infections. Since H. pylori contributes to alkalinized stomach acid, rebalancing the stomach can support increased acid secretion.
Address hiatal hernias, even if only “small.” This hernia pushes the stomach up through the LES, which can cause a steady release of acid into the esophagus. While some providers swear that a small hiatal hernia will not contribute to reflux, we have seen reflux resolve quickly in our practice when even small hiatal hernias are addressed.A good chiropractor or visceral therapist is worth their weight in gold here to help avoid invasive surgery.
Need help with reflux or GERD? We’re happy to help!