A Tale of Indigestion -- It All Starts in the Stomach
"Try taking a stomach acid supplement", offered a colleague when I expressed a need for reprieve from my chronic indigestion. "Nah", I retorted, "my digestive troubles are deep in my gut, not my stomach".
I thought my statement was accurate, for I rarely observed pain, burning or heartburn in or around my stomach. I always felt the symptoms localized in my lower belly -- bloating, gas, pain and constipation to name a few.
"Just try it", she countered.
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Both skeptical and hopeful, I took her recommendation. Since then, I have surprisingly seen remarkable improvements in my digestive health. After over a decade of fruitless searching (and thousands of dollars on dietary supplements, books and visits to doctors, nutritionists and naturopaths) I finally began healing the issue from the digestive "starting line", my stomach, rather than just treating the symptoms down the pike.
Treating Indigestion from North to South
Digestion flows from top to bottom, and according to Biotics Research representative Daniel Broenning, BS, CNN, treatment should follow this same path, starting with chewing food carefully and fully. The stomach, of course, is next in line -- if there's too little stomach acid to break down proteins and to cleave mineral bonds, digestive ailments and chronic diseases can arise from the body's reaction to improperly digested food that leaves the upper GI tract to venture down into the intestines (1).
In a healthy stomach with proper pH, complex chemical signals are relayed to nearby digestive organs (the pancreas and liver) right as the food leaves the stomach to the duodenum (upper intestine) (2). These chemical messages tell the organs that food is on its way, and that the food will be highly acidic from its acid bath in the stomach. In turn, the pancreas will release bicarbonate to alkalinize the acid, and enzymes to continue the operation of breaking down food into smaller and smaller particles. Bile is also released from the gall bladder to digest fats. This intricate communication is reliant on the acidity in the stomach. If the stomach is not within a pH range of 1.5 to 2.5, the pancreas and liver will not release enough of the essential components to alkalinize and break down the food once it leaves the stomach, often causing irritating and often harmful problems later down the line, including malnutrition and inflammatory bowel disease.
Symptoms of indigestion resulting from low stomach acid:
- Gas and bloating immediately following a meal
- Offensive breath, body odor and foul smelling stool
- Indigestion, diarrhea or constipation
- Black or tarry-colored stools
- Undigested food in stool
- Stomach pains or cramps
- Multiple food allergies and environmental sensitivities
- Excessive fullness after meals
- Heartburn or acid reflux
Why would acid reflux be on the symptoms list for low stomach acid? Wouldn't heartburn indicate too much acid?
Ironically, millions of Americans are popping pills to decrease stomach acid when many, maybe most, actually have too little. Stomach acid naturally decreases with age. In fact, half the people over the age of sixty have hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid) and by age eighty-five, 80 percent of the healthy people tested had low stomach acid (3).
Low stomach acid can actually produce the same symptoms as too much acid, namely the feeling of burning in the stomach and acid reflux into the esophagus. This is due to fermentation of undigested food in the stomach that is not properly exposed to suitable amounts of stomach acid (4). Fermentation produces large amounts of gas that pushes stomach acid and food back up into the esophagus. I guess you could technically call this "acid reflux", but better to call it a "gaseous eruption".
Popping antacids will do nothing long term for this. You may get some relief by alkalizing the refluxing acid and whatever acid is left in your stomach, but if you are chronically low, reducing the acid even further will most likely worsen your symptoms later on.
Burning in the stomach may also be caused by a bacterium called h-pylori. H-pylori can be a serious threat: it burrows deep into the mucosal layer of the stomach and halts the production of stomach acid to keep it alive. This bacterium is a known cause of stomach cancer (5). If you think you may be at risk for h-pylori, have your doctor test you.
How to Increase Stomach Acid with Food, Supplements and Lifestyle
HCl with Betaine Supplement - Until the body can begin secreting adequate amounts of HCl (hydrochloric acid) on its own, supplemental HCl can be used. I use Thorne Research that can be purchased over-the-counter through Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy or ordered online. Take one capsule with a meal. If you do not feel a sense of warmth in the stomach, increase to two capsules at the next meal. Continue increasing the dose by one capsule per meal (interspersed throughout the meal) until you feel a distinct warm sensation in the stomach (you may be taking anywhere from 1-8 capsules per meal). As soon as you feel warmth, drop the dose by one capsule at the next meal (6).
Digestive Bitters Tincture - (See recipe below to make your own). Bitter foods stimulate the stomach to make more of its own acid. Take a dropper-full of bitter tincture before each meal.
L-Glutamine and Deglycyrrhiizinated Licorice - These supplements can help repair the acid secreting cells in the stomach (7). They are also excellent at repairing the digestive tract from top to bottom.
Umeboshi Plum - (See Umeshoyu Dressing recipe below). These salty little fermented plums can be sucked on or eaten before a meal. Purchase them whole or in paste-form at natural foods stores in the Asian section.
Chew Your Food - Digestion essentially starts in the mouth. Chewing food deliberately and slowly increases the surface area of the food, making the stomach's job considerably easier. Chewing also stimulates the stomach to produce acid. Get in the habit of chewing each bite at least 25-50 times before swallowing.
Eat Smaller Meals - While its OK to over-indulge on special occasions, keep meals smaller on a daily basis. It can be hard on the stomach to produce enough acid on an over-stuffed stomach.
Digestive Bitters Tincture
Take a dropper of this digestive blend before each meal to stimulate acid production in the stomach. Amounts do not need to be exact. Most items, including dropper bottles, can be purchased at a local herb store or ordered online...
This simple, Asian dressing doubles as a digestive aid. Drizzle over steamed vegetables, chicken or fish. You can find packaged whole umeboshi plums or paste in the Asian section of your local natural foods market...
1. Broenning, Daniel, BS, CCN. DSD International. Biotics Research Telecourse Series: The Gut Part 1. 2009.
2. Gershon, Michael M.D. The Second Brain. Harper Collins. New York. 1998.
3. Lipski, Elizabeth Ph.D. Digestive Wellness. McGraw Hill. New York. 2005.
4. Bauman College Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts. Nutrition Educator Handbook: Role of the Gastrointestinal Tract. Penngrove, California. 2009.
5. Mayo Clinic. H-Pylori Infection: Complications. 2009.
6. Livers, Erin. Nutrition Therapist. Boulder, Colorado. 2008.
7. Balch, Phyllis A., CNC and Balch, James F., M.D. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Avery. New York, New York. 2000.
8. mercola.com. Non-Drug Options for GERD: Except from Men's Journal Magazine. 2009.
9. Donna Gates' Body Ecology Diet. Low Stomach Acid: The Risks, the Symptoms, and the Solutions. 2009.
10. Allergy Self-Help. Low Acid Self-Help. 2009.
acid reflux hypochlorhydria heartburn indigestion stomach acid supplements low stomach acidsymptoms of h-pylori increasing stomach acid HCl with betaine digestive bitters umeboshi plumb natural cooking food and drink cooking healthy cooking natural foods recipe food blogfood blogs chef blogs chef blog recipes Alison Anton food