Stomach acid, immunity and healthy digestion

Lately I’ve been thinking about stomach acid. And chances are, if you deal with heartburn, indigestion or other digestive issues, you have too.

Heartburn or acid reflux – the burning sensation in the chest caused by stomach acid leaking into the oesophagus – can in fact be a sign of low rather than high acid production.

Low stomach acid has also been linked to inflammatory bowel disease, leaky gut syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and even Alzheimer’s.

What does that mean for long-term sufferers of digestive, inflammatory or autoimmune problems? Firstly, put down the antacids! Secondly, keep reading.

Symptoms of low stomach acid

The stomach needs acid to function properly. Acid digests protein, helps absorb vitamin B12, iron and zinc, and closes the opening between the stomach and oesophagus, preventing acid reflux.

Burping after meals, feeling full quickly whilst eating, bloating, and smelly wind within an hour of eating all point to low stomach acid levels, along with heartburn.

Other signs include nausea, vomiting, dry skin, cracked nails, thyroid problems, difficulty breathing and irregular heart rhythms.

Why do I have low stomach acid?

It’s estimated that up to 80% of people have low stomach acid. The reason for this is as follows.  

When we sit down for a meal, we should be in ‘rest and digest’ mode. In this relaxed state, signals travel through the nerves to the digestive organs and juices start flowing. An example of this is the ‘mouth watering effect’ we get when we see or smell something delicious.

But when we eat ‘on the go’, or when we’re stressed or irritated, this doesn’t happen. Instead, we are still in ‘fight or flight’ mode – our body isn’t expecting to receive food and isn’t prepared to digest it.

Simply doing some deep breathing for 15 minutes before a meal helps to prepare the body for food. Lemon juice, apple cider vinegar and ginger tea also help. But the most important thing is to relax, eat slowly, chew properly and drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Stomach acid and the immune system

Stomach acid isn’t just important for digestion – it affects the entire immune system. It sterilises the gut from harmful microbes in food, and breaks down protein molecules to a manageable size for our bodies to absorb.

If protein isn’t broken down sufficiently, this causes inflammation in the gut. In the presence of a damaged gut lining (known as “leaky gut”), these molecules can pass into the bloodstream and react with the body’s tissues, leading to autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

Stomach acid and the nervous system

Protein in the blood also puts strain on the kidneys, and can be neurotoxic, possibly contributing to neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

In fact, Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs), a widely-prescribed form of antacid medication, has been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease through its effects on ‘intrinsic factor’, an important component of stomach acid.

By reducing intrinsic factor, these drugs prevent the adequate absorption of vitamin B12 – an essential nutrient for the nervous system. Common symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency are memory loss, dizziness, pins and needles, unexplained fatigue, muscle weakness and problems with vision.

How natural treatment can help

If yours is a simple case of low acid levels, betaine hydrochloride supplements will help significantly. If you think you have inflammation or a ‘leaky gut’ as well, probiotics and a high or low fibre diet will also be needed depending on your symptoms.
Ginger, slippery elm, aloe vera and chamomile are just some of the herbs that can help – but lifestyle changes aimed at reducing stress are just as important for keeping stomach acid levels at their optimum in the long term.

Home stomach acid test

Luckily there is a simple test you can do at home to test your stomach acid levels. First thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, dissolve ¼ teaspoon of baking soda in a small amount of water and drink.
You should burp within 3 minutes. If it takes 3-5 minutes or longer to burp, this indicates low acid levels. Do the test three days in a row to figure out your average level.