Frequently patients come into my office complaining of chronic indigestion and persistent heartburn. Many of them have taken Tums or Rolaids for years, graduating to prescription antacids when the over-the-counter remedies fail to provide lasting relief. Consistently their doctors have told these patients that their indigestion is caused by too much stomach acid and that the solution is to block acid production. More often than not, especially for our seniors, this is a misdiagnosis and potentially harmful to their health.
Our stomachs are designed to produce enough acid to turn even large meals into what could be described as a digestive soup. The acid in the stomach, specifically Hydrochloric Acid (HCL), plays an essential role in breaking down proteins and activating a cascade of digestive functions and enzymes. This HCL is one of the most important of all bodily secretions. If we take medications to shut off or neutralize our stomach’s ability to produce this acid, we create a significant inability to completely digest our food and absorb the nutrients it contains.
Without adequate levels of HCL in the stomach, we lose the ability activate the important gastric enzyme, Pepsin. Pepsin is most active at a pH of 2-3 (very acidic) and is completely inactive at a pH above 5. Typical antacids easily raise the pH of the stomach to 6 or higher! Activation of Pepsin is critical to proper digestion because it is capable of digesting essentially all the different types of proteins in the diet. One of Pepsin’s most important features is its ability to digest collagen. Collagen is the connective tissue component of meat that first must be broken down so that the other digestive enzymes can penetrate the meat and digest the cellular proteins. With depressed levels of HCL, many nutrients, especially essential amino acids, certain minerals and at least two B vitamins aren’t made as available to our bodies. Therefore they are not properly absorbed into our bloodstream and our cells When this acidified soup moves out of the stomach and into the small intestine, it triggers the release of hormones that stimulate the pancreas and gallbladder to make or release their own digestive secretions; such as enzymes, bicarbonate and bile. Without the acid trigger, these hormones are under-produced and the next stages of digestion don’t work properly. This makes another whole group of nutrients less available to our cells. An entire cascade of digestive processes are affected when stomach acid is too low, a condition known as Hypochlorhydria.
Another consequence of low or no stomach acid production is the increased susceptibility to invading bacteria and parasites. Under normal acidic conditions, the HCL provides a barrier to intestinal tract infections by dissolving virtually any “bugs” that enter the stomach. Further down the intestinal tract is home to beneficial micro-organisms known as micro-flora. They assist with digestion, secrete a few important vitamins and help us absorb minerals. If the pH balance is off, many of the friendly microbes die out and are replaced by not-so-friendly germs that excrete toxins that can make us sick. Not only can we be semi-starving ourselves through incomplete digestion and absorption, but we may also be encouraging toxins from our gut to enter our system.
You can eat all the right foods and still suffer from malnutrition. An overwhelming percentage of individuals with indigestion have actually been under producing stomach acid for years.
Hypochlorhydria is one of the most common digestive malfunctions and is often accompanied by other, seemingly unrelated, health issues like type 2 diabetes, thyroid malfunction, RA, skin issues, gallbladder disease, hives, brittle nails and hair loss in women. Some more obvious signs of low acidity are bloating, belching, constipation, diarrhea, a burning sensation after eating and the feeling that food just sits in your stomach, undigested.
Inadequate digestion becomes even more frequent with age. Ten to 15 percent of the population and an estimated 50 percent of people over 60 suffers from Hypochlorhydria. Many individuals who have too little stomach acid are being misdiagnosed and mistreated as if they have too much, likely because the symptoms are similar. How could this happen? It’s easy – symptom relief. Not to mention the multimillion dollar marketing campaigns designed to drive home the message that indigestion is caused by too much acid. Interestingly, the FDA has never required pharmaceutical companies to prove that indigestion is caused by over-acidity.
In our office we test patients for low stomach acid and nutritional deficiencies to determine the true cause of their symptoms. I’ve found that supplementation of Betaine Hydrochloride in conjunction with Pepsin usually yields the best results. We also replace other digestive enzymes, recommend intestinal flora support (also known as probiotics), and supplement amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Ask your doctor to check you for Hypochlorhydria or contact our office for more information. You may also want to pick up the book Why Stomach Acid is Good for You, by Dr. Wright and Dr. Lenard.
Dr. Chris Maffit practices at Delta Spinal Care Holistic Health and Wellness Center in Clayton.
For more information you may visit their website at www.deltaspinalcare.com.
Delta Spinal Care
Holistic Health and Wellness Center