Today we continue our three-part exploration about ACID, as we focus on acid reflux. Part One found us uncovering what’s behind the hoopla around lemon water. In Part Two we explored apple cider vinegar, and today we’re all about stomach acid. Why is stomach acid important? Why-oh-why do so many people suffer from acid reflux? Are acid reflux medications safe? And more. This is a juicy topic, so hang on to your seat, and LET’s GO.
Why is stomach acid important?
Stomach acid is muy importante! Its official name is hydrochloric acid (HCl). Our stomach lining secretes it, along with a compound called intrinsic factor, via specialized cells called parietal cells. These cells maintain the necessary acid pH of our stomach environment. They do this by responding to specific triggers that tell them to bring on more acid when we eat, which allows us to properly to digest our food. But there’s more.
In addition to breaking down food into smaller molecules, stomach acid has other important jobs. It triggers the release of pepsin and intrinsic factor, which further assist digestion by splitting apart protein molecules and liberating B12 from food, respectively. HCl prompts our small intestine to release the necessary enzymes to absorb nutrients. Stomach acid is also our first line of defense to kill ingested pathenogens like yeast, parasites and bacteria (including bad boys like H. pylori, E. coli, salmonella). Wow!
Another important HCl task that is key to our discussion here: Proper levels of stomach acid help to close our lower esophageal sphincter (the flap at the end of our esophagus as it dumps into the stomach). That influx of stomach acid also triggers the pyloric sphincter to open, which allows the partially digested food to move from our stomach into the small intestine. See what I mean about HCl being important? This is actually the short list of HCl tasks; it has a SERIOUS job description.
So…why is stomach acid important? Because if we don’t have enough of it, we become malnourished, our body is more vulnerable to infection, we develop food allergies and our sphincters don’t close and open properly, making digestion a big, uncomfortable mess.
The Plot Thickens: Acid Reflux
As we age, a special bonus (dripping with sarcasm) is that the release of stomach acid secretions starts to decline. Meanwhile, a common affect of chronic stress is compromised digestive function, including reduced HCl production.
These factors can hinder the many tasks of HCl that we explored above, and more. Mechanically, things go amuck too: The upper sphincter doesn’t close well, allowing stomach acid to burble into our sensitive esophagus. AND the lower sphincter doesn’t open as well, holding food in the stomach where—especially without enough stomach acid—it can start to ferment, causing gas.
This means that the gathering gas can then help even more acidy liquid bubble into the esophagus past the only-partially-closed esophageal sphincter. Sound familiar? ACID REFLUX and GERD. Because so many people suffer from the discomfort of these conditions—an estimated 30% in America—acid-reducing drugs are one of the top ten prescribed drugs in the world.
So. The plot thickens:
- In an estimated 90% of cases, what we think is a problem of too much stomach acid is actually a problem of NOT ENOUGH STOMACH ACID, largely induced by age and chronic stress.
- Once we take an acid-reducing drug, on top of already having low stomach acid, we now have little to no stomach acid. Which, of course, means that we no longer feel uncomfortable when stuff burbles up into our esophagus because most of the life-preserving stomach acid is gonzo. With acid-inhibiting drugs, the symptom improves, but our health worsens.
Over and over in my work of functional medicine and foundational health, I see that a symptom isn’t a disease. Instead, it’s a flag for underlying foundational imbalances.
Acid Reflux Drug Issues
In truth, we may experience less discomfort on those drugs (less burning), but there’s a series of unfortunate outcomes that are common:
- Improper digestion of protein, the building block of the body
- Incomplete digestion of carbohydrates, the energy molecule of the body
- Improper assimilation of nutrients such as iron, folate, calcium, zinc and B12
- Lowered immunity
- Gas, burping and stomach bloating
- A related condition called gastroparesis, which means delayed stomach emptying. This is often largely due to that lower sphincter not opening properly to empty into the intestines, because stomach acid is too low.
- Proliferation of bacteria and yeast in the intestines
- Low stomach acid can lead to SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) and ulcers
- Improper digestion in the upper part of our GI (gastrointestinal) tract can lead to disruption on the other end, if you know what I mean.
- Increased potential for anemia, autoimmune conditions, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, and more.
- Studies have shown that people often develop osteoporosis within a year of being on anti-acid meds, as they are not assimilating and absorbing calcium and magnesium properly. Further, in an ironic twist, without proper B12, other B vitamins, and minerals, we have less ability to make stomach acid!
Basically, proper digestion is key to health and to life. It’s how we receive nourishment, protect ourselves and maintain proper immunity. If we’re not properly nourished, a lot more than the sad story above can happen, because other systems and organs of the body are affected. As such, when I work with clients on healing digestive function, it’s amazing what I hear. Things like:
- My energy is off the charts!
- I’m finally losing excess weight
- I’m sleeping better
- My pants button again (no bloating!)
- I’m no longer constipated
- My IBS has improved
- My mind is sharper
- Eating is fun again
How to Heal Acid Reflux
The solution in most cases of acid reflux is to bring MORE acid into the stomach. This typically involves careful and intentional use of supplements, evolving food choices, adopting lasting habits for managing stress, and restoring the healthy mucosal lining in the small intestine. Results are often relatively quick, but it’s a tricky job to boost the acid WHILE not flaring the discomfort in an already-raw esophagus. This is best done under the care of a knowledgeable, whole-person practitioner who can stay in lock-step with you while you heal.
If nothing else, know this: we need stomach acid. It’s essential to our health on many levels. Proper digestion of nutrient-dense foods provides us with everything we need to heal and thrive! We CAN heal acid reflux and GERD; they are imbalances, not diseases.
Create Vibrant Health: BodyMindSpirit®
With love and happy digestion,