Do you suffer from heartburn, or believe you have excess stomach acid? Do you regularly take over the counter remedies like antacids to relieve that burning feeling?
If so, you should take a moment to consider what the underlying problem might be. You might be surprised to learn that most cases of heartburn are caused not by an excess of stomach acid, but by a lack of it.
Everything that your body does is for a reason. The acidic environment in your stomach performs several important roles that are truly vital for good digestive health and wellbeing. That heartburn is a sign of imbalances in your digestive tract. Taking an antacid may relieve your short-term symptoms, but it won’t fix the long-term imbalance. Antacids may even contribute to other problems. For example, an acidic environment in your stomach and intestines is one of your first lines of defense against pathogens like Candida.
You have probably heard terms like heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease) used interchangeably. There are actually some differences between what they mean.
Acid reflux is the term for acid leaking or splashing from your stomach up into your esophagus (the tube between your stomach and throat). Heartburn is the name for the burning sensation that you typically experience when this happens. And GERD is the condition where acid reflux happens regularly, or chronically.
The most important thing to know is that heartburn, acid reflux and GERD can all be caused by low stomach acid. If this is the case, acid reducing drugs like antacids could actually be making your heartburn worse, not better.
Where does stomach acid come from?
Stomach acid doesn’t just come from one source. The gastric glands in your stomach produce hydrochloric acid, which forms the main part of your stomach acid. The foods and medications you consume also contribute to the overall pH. Further down your digestive tract, ‘healthy bacteria’ like Lactobacillus acidophilus produce lactic acid to maintain an acidic environment in your intestines.
Isn’t all this acid bad for your stomach lining? Actually, no. Although the pH of the stomach is a very acidic 1.5 to 3.0, your stomach lining has a special trick that prevents it from being damaged. A dense layer of mucous and epithelial cells produces an alkaloid solution that counteracts the gastric acid. By the time your stomach fluids actually reach the stomach lining, they are far less acidic.
What’s the point of stomach acid?
Why do we need this extremely acidic and potentially harmful substance in our stomachs? It’s tempting to think that we’d be better off without gastric acid, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Stomach acid performs several vitally important roles. Here are just a few of them.
- Begins the process of breaking down proteins in your food, by activating the enzyme pepsin
- Aids your immune system, by inhibiting the growth of pathogenic organisms that you might have consumed
- Lowers the pH of your food until it is ready to be passed on to the small instestine
As you can see, stomach acid is a vital component of your digestive system and your immune system.
Low stomach acid doesn’t just cause acid reflux and heartburn. It can also contribute to chronic disease and imbalances in many other parts of your body.
Insufficient stomach acid can prevent you from digesting your foods properly. This means that undigested food is passes on to your intestines. The presence of this undigested food in your intestines can cause ulcers, damage the intestinal lining, and lead to blooms of undesirable microorganisms like Candida overgrowth or SIBO.
If this condition of low acidity is serious enough, it can cause a protein deficiency. Then, your body will start looking for other sources of protein like from the surfaces of your joints. As the joints suffer, there is the possibility of this eventually leading to arthritis. In fact, multiple studies have found low stomach acid in individuals suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
Lastly, a lack of stomach acid can interfere with the passage of food from your stomach to small intestine. In a healthy digestive system, the pH of the food in your stomach is lowered until a point where it is allowed to drop into the intestines. An unhealthy pH can slow this process, leading to slow digestion and contributing to bloating after meals.
What happens when you get heartburn and acid reflux?
It is commonly believed heartburn is caused by an excess of gastric acid in the stomach. The theory goes that when there is too much acid, it backs up and creates that burning sensation in the esophagus. This is not usually the case. Here is a more likely explanation for what is happening.
The stomach possesses two valves, one at the top and at the bottom. The valve at the top opens both ways, while the one at the bottom only opens one way. The lower valve opens when your food becomes acidic enough to pass on to the small intestine. If this doesn’t happen, fast enough, pressure can build up in the stomach. And there is only one direction in which the pressure can be reduced – upwards.
That’s how stomach acid ends up splashing up into your esophagus. Not because stomach acid is too high, but because it is too low and it is preventing food from passing through your stomach in a timely manner.
How to fix low stomach acid
Restoring the correct acidity to your intestines will come more easily when you follow an effective anti-Candida diet. By cutting out processed and refined foods, eliminating added sugars and restricting fruit, you should start to see improvements in your digestion. Within a few days of starting the diet, your gut pH should be much closer to the optimal level of acidity, allowing your recovery to begin.
However, depending on your age and health, your body may need a little extra assistance. Even with the best diet, we all lose stomach acid production as we age. Sometimes we simply need to replace what we’re losing due to this aging process. That’s where supplements like Betaine HCl can be very useful, to supplement the stomach acid that you are already producing.
Other measures might include changing your eating habits to chew more, and to not rush your meals. Eliminating antacid medication is a great step to take, as it may be making your symptoms worse. Instead, supplement with things like digestive bitters, Betaine HCl, digestive enzymes, and apple cider vinegar.