We’ve all been there; at a restaurant, a family dinner, a neighborhood barbecue. The food is delicious, the company charming, and all seems well. Then, without warning, it strikes. Heartburn caused by acid reflux disease turns your normal day into a nightmare. In many cases, heartburn during or after a meal can be traced to abnormal levels of stomach acid.
Stomach Acid 101
Our stomachs are programmed to produce the acid that keeps the digestive system in tip-top shape. A healthy stomach produces hydrocholoric acid that keeps the stomach’s pH (a measure of acidity) between 1.5 and 3. That’s potent enough to scald you from the inside out if it wasn’t for the barrier of mucous and epithelial cells that secrete a basic solution to protect you.
Stomach acid plays a vital part in digestive health. Its duties include:
- Converting proteins into a digestible form through a process called proteolysis.
- Signaling the pepsin enzyme to activate the digestion process.
- Preventing infection by killing bacteria and other microbes ingested through food.
- Moving partially digested food from the stomach into the small intestine to resume digestion.
In a healthy digestive tract, food moves from the esophagus to the stomach, where churning and acid production occurs. The food then travels into the small intestine, where enzymes from the pancreas take over, and sodium bicarbonate counters the acidity of the food to prevent internal burning.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
GERD is a digestive disorder in which the contents of the stomach flow backwards up into the esophagus, causing irritation and symptoms including heartburn. Triggers include low stomach acid, excessive consumption of acidic foods, and lying down or engaging in physical activity immediately after a meal.
Clinical studies reveal that nearly 90 percent of Americans produce insufficient amounts of stomach acid, the leading cause of GERD, or chronic acid reflux. Furthermore, the National Institute of Diabetes and Kidney Digestive Diseases reports that nearly 60 million people suffer from heartburn at least once per month, with nearly 25 million people experiencing daily symptoms.
Multiple studies reveal that as we age, our risk of GERD and heartburn increases, and levels of stomach acid decrease. Nearly a third of men and women over 60 produce little to no stomach acid.
While bad eating habits, obesity, and other external factors contribute to GERD symptoms, low stomach acid remains the prime suspect. The root of acid reflux is intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), caused by incomplete absorption of carbohydrates by bacteria in the stomach. When this occurs, the body lets you (and anyone around you) know through a very obvious signal – gas.
Bacteria in the stomach prefer to metabolize carbs over fats and proteins. For bacteria to do their job properly, the stomach must first convert the carbs into glucose (simple sugars) before passing them to the small intenstine. Too little stomach acid (or too many carbs) hinders this conversion, leaving some carbs to ferment, produce gas, create pressure, and ultimately cause acid reflux and heartburn.
It’s nothing a few antacids can’t fix, right? That’s the common notion in the U.S., where heartburn and associated symptoms are likened to one too many enchiladas. The truth is that GERD is the nation’s most prevalent digestive disorder, affecting between 10 to 20 percent of Americans on a weekly basis. The ease of obtaining quick over-the-counter fixes hasn’t helped the cause, either. Most people with chronic heartburn simply swallow a few pills and forget about it until the next occurence. Unfortunately, spot fixes don’t address the underlying problem. If left untreated, long-term effects of chronic acid reflux may include internal scarring, bowel constriction, ulcerative colitis, and even esophageal cancer.
In addition, low stomach acid can lead to a host of other complications including but not limited to:
- Hard or painful stools
- Sensitivity to certain foods
- Chronic fatigue
- Dry skin
Essential Food Supplements
The the most important factor for the prevention and treatment of GERD and heartburn is maintaining a healthy diet. There are several important food supplements that can help build stomach acid:
Sea Salt: High quality salts and sea salts with potent amounts of chloride are integral to keeping a healthy levels of stomach acid.
Raw Apple Cider Vinegar: With its highly acidic content, apple cider vinegar will slightly lower the pH in the stomach. Frequent doses of raw apple cider vinegar have also been linked to mitigating the effects of candida which can negatively affect stomach acid production.
HCL Supplements: A powerful treatment that can offer relief from heartburn is hydrochloric acid with pepsin supplements. These supplements can offer a potent results but should be combined with a healthy diet in order to build and maintain a proper balance of stomach acids.
Doctors often also recommend hydrochloric acid supplements and pepsin capsules to treat GERD and heartburn. These treatments regulate healthy levels of stomach acid and enzymes to promote healthy digestion. Talk to your doctor before self-medicating, and take all supplements in the recommended dosage. Other lifestyle factors such as obesity may also contribute to your symptoms. If your doctor confirms that your stomach acid levels are normal, these tips may help:
- Exercise regularly. Excess weight contributes to IAP, making it easier for food and liquid to move up into the esophagus. Light-to-moderate exercise such as walking, jogging, and light weight training can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Consult your doctor before starting an exercise regimen.
- Wear comfortable clothing. Tight pants and belts constrict your abdomen, preventing the contents of your stomach from settling.
- Beware of food triggers. Some people are more sensitive to certain foods than others. Fatty foods, spicy or tomato-based dishes, alcohol, garlic, and coffee are common culprits. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist about diet modification.
- Eat healthier portions. Avoid eating until you feel full. Pay attention to portion sizes, and balance your carbs, fats, and proteins.
- Eat smaller meals. Avoid overeating by eating smaller meals.