Many of us deal with occasional heartburn, while others have GERD or chronic heartburn. Heartburn is believed to be from the production of too much stomach acid. However, for most of us it is usually the opposite! In fact only about 10% of heartburn, GERD or acid reflux cases are due to the overproduction of acid.
Did you know that a lack of stomach acid can be the cause of these symptoms? You see our stomachs are meant to be very acidic. Normal PH of the stomach should be between 1.5 and 3.0. When we begin eating, the cells in our stomach lining begin to secrete hydrochloric acid or HCL. Our stomach then churns the food with the acid to break down the proteins, before it can move on down to the duodenum it has to be acidic enough to trigger the opening of the pyloric sphincter. If the chyme (food mixed with gastric juices) is not acidic enough, the pyloric sphincter does not want to open. This causes the food to sit in the gut too long and begin fermenting creating an intense amount of pressure on the cardiac sphincter at the top of the stomach, forcing it to open up. This allows regurgitation back in to the esophagus causing painful heartburn.
Try putting a piece of chicken, rice and green beans, perhaps a little chocolate cake and a glass of wine or beer in a blender, mix it up and leave it in a 98 degree room for a few hours and see what happens. It is not a pretty thing!
Now I bet you are thinking at this point, “If I don't have enough stomach acid, then why is it burning?" It is because the food coming back up is still far too acidic for the delicate tissues of the esophagus and causes damage. When you take an antacid or a proton pump inhibitor you are neutralizing the acid in the chyme so it won’t burn, but you are not fixing the problem. In fact, you are contributing to further digestive dysfunction farther down the tract, reducing the ability to absorb nutrients, and setting the stage for chronic and degenerative diseases.
In addition, the acid in our stomach is our body's very first line of defense against pathogens entering our systems. That is why some people eating the same dish will get food poisoning and others will not. It's not the bacteria – it is the terrain. Our stomach acid also keeps H-pylori (the bacteria that causes ulcers) in check.
So why are we so prone to low stomach acid, also known as hypochlorhydria?
Our bodies need to be in a parasympathetic state to begin producing stomach acid. So really digestion begins in the brain. Many of us tend to get stuck in a sympathetic state "hyper alert" with our hectic modern world we have a harder time shifting gears to truly relax when we begin eating. Some simple ways to remedy this is to slow down, take some deep breaths, close your eyes, or say a little prayer, perhaps sit on the floor. I know that this may seem a little crazy but it really works. The more relaxed you can become, the better you will digest.
Other steps to help increase stomach acid production are sipping a little sauerkraut juice or apple cider vinegar right before eating. You can supplement HCL as well. You can purchase it from a compounding pharmacy or on Amazon.com. I recommend using Betaine HCL with Pepsin. If you have an ulcer you should not take HCL until it has healed. (If you are currently taking prescription acid reducers and wish to discontinue using them consult with your prescribing doctor.)
For HCL supplementation, take one capsule at the start of each meal containing protein. Keep in mind some people may need to take up to six capsules with meals at first to notice benefits, but as your body begins to achieve balance you will need less and less. It's good to work with a nutritional therapist to troubleshoot dosing, and figuring out other missing elements.