In this post, I’m going to answer the question Why is Stomach Acid Important for Healthy Digestion?
If you struggle with bothersome digestive symptoms and feel like you’ve tried all the things to overcome your IBS symptoms, there is one important piece of the digestion puzzle that you may not have put in place yet.
You might actually need more stomach acid to improve your digestion and overcome your IBS symptoms.
I know, it sounds crazy to think that LOW stomach acid could be what’s causing your GI symptoms, but hear me out…
What is stomach acid?
Stomach acid…aka: hydrochloric acid, or HCL for short.
When we eat, our stomach produces gastric juices that help break down and absorb nutrients from our food.
Gastric juice is made up of a variety of substances that work together to do this important work of digestion!
One of these substances is hydrochloric acid (HCL), which is produced by glands in the lining of the stomach and is what makes the gastric juices so acidic.
And while you might think having a bunch of acidic juice sitting in your stomach would make you feel awful, this isn’t exactly the case.
Why is Stomach Acid Important for Healthy Digestion?
Stomach acid (HCL) helps with a variety of functions, including…
Breaking Down our Food
When food enters the stomach, it mixes with the gastric juices and gets broken down further before moving into the small intestine.
HCL helps with this process. If we don’t produce enough HCL, we won’t break down our food as completely.
Killing Pathogens, Bacteria, Fungi and Viruses
The food we eat can carry potentially harmful pathogens, bacteria, fungi or viruses into our body.
When these pathogens enter the stomach, HCL is there to kill them off so they don’t take hold.
Too little HCL means that these pathogens might live on and travel to other areas of our body. This can make us sick or cause problems to other systems of the body.
Eating healthy foods that are full of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients our body’s need to thrive is so important!
But, if our digestion isn’t optimal, you may not effectively absorb all the beneficial nutrients you’re eating.
Without enough HCL, your body won’t be able to effectively absorb certain nutrients, especially iron and Vitamin B12.
What causes low stomach acid?
There are several reasons why your body might make less stomach acid than it should.
H. Pylori Infection
Helicobacter pylori (h. pylori for short) is a bacteria that can infect and overgrow in the stomach. It’s easy to contract h. pylori and many people don’t even realize they have it.
While h. pylori is thought to be present in 50% to 60% of people, it doesn’t always cause problems or symptoms if it doesn’t overgrow in the stomach.
An overgrowth of h. pylori in the stomach can impact stomach acid because it can damage the lining of the stomach, which produces HCL
Plus, h. pylori produces an enzyme that makes HCL less acidic and, therefore, less effective.
Certain medications impact the levels of HCL in the stomach.
The most common medications that do this are antacids and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). The goal of these medications is to lower HCL production in an effort to treat gastric reflux and stomach ulcers.
Stress impacts all systems of the body, and digestion is no different. Chronic stress has a negative impact on digestion.
In the case of stomach acid production, being in a constant state of stress doesn’t allow your body to “rest and digest”.
When you aren’t relaxed when you eat, it’s not as easy for your body to perform the functions of digestion, which includes production of HCL.
Certain minerals are essential in the production of stomach acid. Sodium and zinc are especially important for HCL production.
Common side effects of low stomach acid
H. Pylori Overgrowth
This could look like a game of “what came first, the chicken or the egg.” As you saw in the above section, and overgrowth of h. pylori can lead to low stomach acid.
On the flip side, low stomach acid can lead to h. pylori overgrowth because low acidity in the stomach can be the perfect environment for h. pylori to thrive.
An overgrowth of h. pylori can cause these symptoms and conditions…
- Excessive burping
- Poor appetite
- Stomach ulcers
When you have less HCL than you need, it’s harder for your body to break down your food when it enters your stomach.
This results in your food sitting in your stomach for longer than it should, which can lead to reflux simply because your food isn’t moving along your digestive tract like it should.
Another reason why you can experience reflux if you have low levels of HCL is because your body will compensate by producing more gastric juices to help break down your food.
This excess of gastric juices can lead to reflux simply because of the extra volume.
SIBO or Gut Microbiome Imbalances
Low levels of HCL can slow down your digestion. This allows your food to sit in your stomach and/or small intestine for longer than it should.
Too little HCL can also allow pathogens, bacteria, fungi and viruses to move through the digestive process, when they would normally be killed by HCL in the stomach.
Both of these scenarios can allow for overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine (which is SIBO). It can also allow for overgrowth of bacteria in the large intestine, which can lead to imbalances in the gut microbiome.
Symptoms of low stomach acid
Here are some of the classic symptoms of low stomach acid…
- Excessive gas and bloating
- Stomach pain, cramping or nausea after eating
- Undigested food in your stool
If any or all of those symptoms are all too familiar to you, check out these 5 tips to boost your body’s production of HCL!
5 tips to boost stomach acid naturally for healthy digestion
1. Manage Stress
Living in a constant state of stress makes it harder for your body to make enough HCL.
It’s especially important to lower your stress during meals so you can get into a “rest and digest” state.
Take 5 or 6 deep belly breaths when you’re sitting down to eat.
Bonus points if you smell the food you’re about to eat while you’re taking those breaths. This will stimulate your body to start making HCL and other important digestive juices!
2. Bitter Foods or Drinks
Eating or drinking something bitter at the beginning of or shortly before your meals will help stimulate HCL production.
Here are some examples…
- Diluted lemon juice or cider vinegar
- Mustard greens
- Dandelion greens
- Zest of citrus fruits
- Fennel seeds (chew on a few while you’re getting your meal to the table)
- Cranberries – try this easy Cranberry Apple Chutney for a fun condiment for most any meal, but especially Thanksgiving dinner!
Minerals, especially zinc and sodium, play an important role in HCL production.
Using a high quality, mineral-rich sea salt will help. I like Celtic sea salt for this.
Meat (especially red meat), seafood, and eggs are all good sources of zinc. Most people don’t need a mega-dose of supplemental zinc, and in fact, doing this can cause an imbalance in other key vitamins and minerals!
4. Chew Really Well!
Chewing our food starts the process of breaking down and digesting our food, and it’s an important step that many people overlook!
The other benefit of chewing really well is that it helps signal to the body that it needs to start producing digestive juices, including HCL.
5. Limit Fluids at Meals
Drinking a lot of fluids when you’re eating can dilute your digestive juices and make them less effective.
Drinking less with your meals doesn’t exactly help your body make more HCL, but it does help make the HCL you are producing to be more effective.
Make sure you drink enough between your meals so you stay hydrated throughout the day! Then you won’t feel like you need to drink as much when you’re eating.
Now that you know why is stomach acid important for healthy digestion, what practices are you committed to putting in place to optimize your stomach acid?
If you have any questions, leave a comment below, and if you know of anyone who would benefit from this information, please send them this article!
In case you want to learn more about gut health and why it’s so important for overall health, check out these posts…
And if you’ve been struggling with IBS or other digestive symptoms and want to discover what it really takes to get long-term relief, grab a free copy of this IBS Breakthrough Starter Guide.