Stomach acid, also known as gastric acid or hydrochloric acid (HCL) is produced by parietal cells located in the gastric glands found in the lining of our stomach.

Stomach acid activates an enzyme called pepsin which along with acids, breaks down protein in the gut. The acids also neutralize harmful pathogens like bacteria and yeasts that can be in the foods entering our stomach.

Low stomach acid, or hypochlorhydria, as it is known, can create a vicious cycle of poor digestion, chronic gut inflammation, unhealthy microbial overgrowth, gut permeability, increased stress hormones and poor nutrient absorption.

Chronic hypochlorhydria can also contribute to SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), SIFO (small intestinal fungal overgrowth), skin conditions, fatigue, food sensitivities, auto-immune diseases, hormonal imbalances and even some cases of depression.

There are many symptoms of low stomach acid such as-

Ø Bloating

Ø Burping

Ø Reflux/heartburn

Ø Excessive gas

Ø Fullness after meals

Ø Constipation

Ø Diarrhoea

Ø Hair breakage or hair loss

Ø Weak, brittle nails

Ø Dry skin

Ø Weight gain

Ø Low iron/B12 levels

There are several things that may contribute to low stomach acid levels such as

Chronic stress – High cortisol blocks the production of hydrochloric acid and other digestive juices. Our autonomic nervous system comprises of two main branches, our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and our Parasympathetic nervous system (rest, digest and reproduce). Chronic stress switches on our sympathetic nervous system which restricts digestive function. Being in a parasympathetic dominant allows for healthy stomach acid production.

Medications such as PPI’s (Proton Pump Inhibitors) – PPI’s block the production of acid in the stomach. There are often prescribed for reflux or heartburn, both of which may actually be from low stomach acid. Taking these medications further lower acid production, leading to microbial overgrowth and creating further stress.

Overuse of NSAIDs – Regular use of Panadol, ibuprofen, aspirin and other over the counter medications wear down the stomach lining which causes a reduction in the ability of the cells of the stomach to produce HCL

H Pylori infection – H Pylori is often a normal part of our gut microbiome but when it overgrows it produces an enzyme called urease that neutralizes the acidifying effects of hydrochloric acid. Untreated elevated levels of H Pylori can cause significant chronic hypochlorhydria.

Older age – As we age there can be a natural gradual decline in stomach acid production, particularly if there has been many years of poor diet and high stress.

Poor diet – Diets high in processed foods, sugars and other inflammatory foods cause inflammation and changes to our microbiome, leading to elevated stress hormones and a reduction in stomach acid.

There are many things we can do naturally to support a healthy production of stomach acid, these can include-

Ø Taking a HCL and pepsin supplement with meals (talk to your practitioner before employing this)

Ø Stress management techniques to reduce cortisol

Ø Chewing food properly before swallowing

Ø Sitting down in a relaxed environment at meals times (avoid eating at work desks, in front of the television, eating on the run, eating when feeling stressed or anxious)

Ø Ensure you are hydrated – optimal hydration supports regular bowel motions and reduces microbial fermentation and toxin recirculation

Ø Avoiding drinking liquids with meals as this dilutes our stomach acid

Ø Bitter foods can stimulate our digestive acids, include foods such as roquette, radicchio, artichokes, dandelion greens, kale, bitter melon, apple cider vinegar or lemons in your meals.

As you can see, healthy stomach acid production is vitally important to ensure healthy digestive function and one of the first places to look when experiencing chronic gut health imbalances, inflammatory conditions or any other conditions mentioned above.

Author: Nicole Brown
Naturopath, Nutritionist & Herbalist for Dr Kathleen & Team