If you have dealt with heartburn or Gastroesophageal Reflex (GERD), you know how uncomfortable it can be! It burns and feels like food that should be digesting comes back up again.
The common thought process is that there is an issue with stomach acid being too strong. In fact, the most commonly prescribed class of medications are called Proton Pump Inhibitors or PPI's for short. (1) These are medications that raise the pH of your stomach acid. They go by names like Pepcid AC and Tagamet. Some are even available over the counter. The thought behind raising stomach acid pH is that it will be less uncomfortable if the acid comes back up. That might be true, but the problem with this is that most heartburn and GERD is actually caused by stomach acid that is too weak. These medications may make the condition less painful, but they can actually be making the problem worse by raising stomach acid pH. Most people actually need stronger, more acidic stomach acid.
What actually happens when a person experiences heartburn? Heartburn or GERD can have several causes, but the most common situation is caused by stomach acid pH being too high. When stomach acid pH is higher than it should be, foods do not get properly broken down. Protein is especially hard to break down if stomach acid is weak. This foods begins to ferment and can cause gas and bloating that actually cause pressure that forces the Lower Esophageal sphincter to open (This should be a one way valve and not open for contents to come back up). Undigested food can also be belched up along with stomach acid. This is the reason for the burning sensation. This burning sensation, over time, can cause damage to the Esophagus. This can sometimes even lead to cancer.
Another problem with weak stomach acid is that bacteria and other foreign invaders that should be killed off by strong stomach acid can survive is the pH of the stomach acid is too high. The risk of certain types of nasty infections can increase when the stomach acid is insufficient to kill the infection. Nutrient absorption can be compromised by high stomach acid pH levels as well. If you can not break down your food, you might not be getting all of the nutrients you need. Vitamin B12 is one of the nutrients that can be most compromised. Many people are already deficient in B12, so this can potentially be a big problem.
While I believe this is the most common reason for heartburn, there are other reasons that might warrant some diagnostic testing and even the use of medication. I think this is much less common, however, than issues with stomach acid pH.
So, what causes stomach acid pH levels to be too high? Age is one factor. As people get older, it is common for stomach acid pH to increase. Stress is another big issue for stomach acid production. Under stress, we simply don't digest our food the way we should. Most Americans live a stressful lifestyle and are sleep deprived, which impairs digestion. The Standard American Diet (SAD) also affects digestion in a variety of ways. Processed junk foods high in carbohydrates and low in nutrients impair digestion as well. Imbalances in the gut microbiome can contribute to insufficient levels of stomach acid. This can be caused by the use of antibiotic medications, poor diet, and infections in the gut environment. Eating on the run can also cause stomach acid to be insufficient. This is related to the stress response which signals the body to go into "fight or flight mode" vs. "Resting and digesting mode"
So, what can you do to improve your levels of stomach acid to improve your digestion? You can begin with a healthy, whole food diet that supports overall good health. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, healthy fats like nuts, coconut, avocados and grass fed organic meats and eggs. Eliminate processed, highly refined, junk foods. You can limit your drinking to outside of meal times. That means waiting at least 30 min. after you eat to drink anything. This will help decrease the pH of your stomach acid. Just make sure you hydrate really well outside of meal times. Lemon and apple cider vinegar are very helpful in acidifying your stomach. Squeeze half of a lemon in your water first thing in the morning and drink it before you eat. Using apple cider vinegar in salad dressings or just taking a teaspoon in the morning can also really help. You can consume protein first as this is requires the strongest stomach acid. You can also eat your largest meal when you are the most relaxed. These things should all help.
If you are experiencing heartburn or GERD, and these strategies don't seem to be helping, some lab work or diagnostic testing might be recommended. I suggest working with someone who can help you get to the root of the problem. I see this situation quite commonly in my functional health practice. If I can be of help, please feel free to use this link to schedule a FREE time to talk to see if we would be the right fit.
I hope you found this helpful. I frequently find that many people believe that their stomach acid is too strong, when in fact, it's probably just the opposite!
To your health!