What is your stomach trying to tell you?
by Mary Budinger —
Got heartburn? Pop an antacid — no, wait. Even though we see those TV commercials touting antacids all the time, if you want to be healthy, that is exactly the wrong thing to do.
Our stomachs are designed to be acid chambers. The pH of water is about 7, and the pH of our stomachs at work is about 2. That level of acidity does good things for us. It sanitizes the food so that any pathogens in it are killed; it sanitizes our stomach lining so we do not get a buildup of things like H. pylori bacteria that can lead to ulcers; and it helps break down the proteins in that steak we ate for dinner.
If you could slide a pH measuring paper into everyone’s stomach, more than half of us would flunk the test, according to most experts. Our pH is not low enough. Okay, let us say the pH of your stomach acid is maybe only 4.5. Now what?
Weak stomach acid does not trigger the timely release of food out of the stomach and into the small intestine. So food hangs around in the stomach longer than intended. The stomach becomes a warm, moist, putrid environment. Carbs ferment, proteins putrefy and fats turn rancid. The resulting gasses do what gasses do — float up. They “reflux,” meaning they travel upward to the esophagus. Even a little bit of stomach acid will burn the delicate esophageal lining, and that is the pain of heartburn — acid reflux.
You can stop the heartburn with a drug, a proton pump inhibitor that reduces stomach acid output, but do that long-term and now you have other problems. Indigestion is first on the list. A system that was not working properly to begin with has little hope of righting itself when drugs stop the stomach from producing acid, which is fundamental to its operation.
Now you cannot digest food, kill the pathogens in food and sterilize the stomach lining. Whoops.
Because you cannot digest food, your body cannot make or absorb nutrients, thus you are not putting fuel in the tank. Lousy nutrient assimilation can lead to flatulence (think reflux in reverse), weak muscles (failure to assimilate amino acids, which make protein, and muscle is mostly protein), leg cramps (failure to assimilate calcium, magnesium and potassium) and depression (failure to assimilate amino acids, which make neurotransmitters).
Remember the phrase, “I’ve got a gut feeling?” The gut is called our second brain because many neurotransmitters get their start in the digestive process. Most of the body’s feel-good serotonin hormone is made in the intestines. A faulty serotonin level has been linked to everything from autism to constipation. This neurotransmitter plays a big role in aggression, appetite, cognition, mood, sexual behavior and even sleep. And most of our immune system is made in the gut.
An unhappy gut opens the door to unwanted guests like fungus overgrowth (think candida). The fermentation occurring in the intestines causes malnutrition, which begins to affect the thyroid gland, making it unable to get the necessary building blocks to produce the hormones that regulate metabolism and body temperature. You feel fatigued, overweight and brain fogged.
With heartburn/acid reflux/GERD, the problem is not too much stomach acid, rather it is that not enough acid is present to keep the valve to the esophagus closed. The happier the acid chamber, the less reflux you have. Acid is in the stomach because it is supposed to be there. Gastric ulcers, for example, most often occur in people whose stomach acid levels are low.
Why do so many people have low hydrochloric acid (HCL) in their stomach? The most common thing that goes wrong is a loss of acid-producing cells. You need minerals for that process, and many of us are deficient in zinc. If you have a mineral imbalance in the body, you cannot make enough HCL. Stress depletes minerals. Also, if people have been vegan or vegetarian for a long time, the body backs off on making HCL because it is not challenged to remain robust by processing proteins. Additionally, our bodies simply produce less HCL as we get older.
There is no easy way to test the pH of your stomach acid. Symptoms like acid reflux usually tell the tale. In women, however, knowledgeable practitioners also look for the telltale sign of thinning hair or cracking and peeling of the fingernails.
If you think you have low stomach acid, swallowing a tablespoon of unfiltered and unpasteurized apple cider vinegar five minutes before starting a meal can be helpful. Be sure to dilute it in water so it will not burn your esophagus. Or you can sip the herbal remedy Swedish bitters at the start of a meal, but do not dilute it — the bitter taste is the point.
Many holistic nutritionists consider the time-honored remedy of homemade bone broth to be one of the best ways to heal the digestive process.
A word of caution — digestive distress can also be a sign of an H. pylori bacterial overgrowth, full-blown peptic ulcer, Barrett’s esophagus or candida overgrowth. Work with a qualified medical professional to rule these out. A doctor can prescribe HCL supplements when apple cider vinegar and Swedish bitters are not enough.
Stomach distress is not normal. Many people cannot understand why they seem tired all the time or are not getting results from their workouts at the gym. Do you want more stamina, less flatulence or belching, better body composition, better absorption of essential fatty acids, better sleep, less asthma, less brain fog? A healthy stomach acid environment may be what you have been missing.
Mary Budinger is an Emmy award-winning journalist who writes about nutrition and integrative medicine. 602-494-1999.
Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 33, Number 4, August/September 2014.