Bloating, gas, acid reflux, heartburn, burping, and even acne can all be signs that you have low stomach acid.
Most believe that stomach acid is the culprit behind many of these symptoms, especially heartburn. Therefore, it’s no surprise we are told to take antacids such as Tums and Rolaids or prescription drugs like Prilosec to stop heartburn. Unfortunately, even though symptoms may vanish for the immediate moment, the long term consequences of suppressing stomach acid can be devastating, leading to many digestive health concerns, which will eventually manifest in other symptoms throughout the body, including skin troubles for some, as in the case of acne.
Why Low Stomach Acid Is Not A Good Thing
Hydrochloric acid, also know as HCL, is an often overlooked factor in digestive care and contributes to deficiencies. HCL has many purposes, but one of the most important is to help breakdown and absorb nutrients in food. In addition to HCL being necessary for protein breakdown, many vitamins and minerals are dependent on HCL to be absorbed, such as:
- zinc (super important skin nutrient!)
These nutrients are also some of the most common deficiencies we see in people, especially in those who don’t eat meat. Although, just because one’s diet contains animal products, does not mean they are necessarily absorbing these nutrients either, especially if there is not a sufficient amount of HCL present in the stomach.
This is exactly what I went through when I made the switch from vegetarian to omnivore years ago. I never had the craving or desire for meat, which is why I initially went vegetarian. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do, and honestly, it wasn’t that hard for me. Although as years passed and I became more educated in what my body needed (at the same time noticing my health deteriorating), I convinced myself to slowly add meat back into my diet. I then started to notice stomach problems creep up, especially bloating and gas after meals, and then I became severely constipated. Turns out that if you’re low in stomach acid (hypochlorhydria), you can’t digest proteins. Therefore, when you consume protein without enough HCL to break it down, it sits there for longer than it’s intended to and begins to ferment. This is why many people will say that meat doesn’t make them feel well, or they bloat or have gas after consuming it. It’s not necessarily the meat or protein causing the distress, you’re simply not breaking down your food. Therefore, the idea of too much stomach acid causing symptoms like heartburn is not true in most cases. Dr. Jonathan Wright, author of “Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You,” makes the point that when food sits in the stomach for too long from a lack of stomach acid this creates pressure from the fermentation produced, which can then cause the food to reverse back into the esophagus, hence the burning sensation many experience.
Your Immune System’s First Line of Defense
So what does low stomach acid have to do with acne? As I’ve discussed many times before, the health of your gut is vital to the health of your skin. According to this study, 40% of those with acne have hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid). Ironically enough, conditions such as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), yeast overgrowth, leaky gut, and other digestive infections such as H. pylori, parasites and even food poisoning may also be due to a lack of stomach acid. Why? HCL is your body’s first line of defense. Beyond it being a crucial role in nutrient absorption, stomach acid is needed to protect you from harmful bugs and bacteria that can enter your system. If enough stomach acid is present, you’ll be able to fight these little (or big) buggers via the presence of HCL, although if you don’t have enough, forget about it. They can easily make their way through your stomach and enter your small and large intestine where they will make a comfy home and begin to create digestive disturbances, eventually leading to more chronic symptoms, many related to the skin. This is why it is not uncommon to see many skin conditions, be it acne, roseacea, dermatitis, eczema and even psoriasis also appear with symptoms of gut dysfunction. I can say that about 80% of clients I see with acne test positive for some type of infection or yeast overgrowth. HCL is the foundation to maintaining your immunity and keeping unwanted critters out of your system.
What Causes Low HCL?
Stomach acid naturally decreases with age, but these lifestyle choices can also decrease stomach acid more rapidly:
- Stress. Whether in the form of an unsupportive diet, emotional or mental, stress slows down our entire body’s ability to function efficiently. HCL is only released when the body is in a relaxed state during which it can properly breakdown and digest food.
- Drugs, medication, and antacids all have the ability over time to reduce HCL and also the beneficial flora that supports the health of our digestive system.
- Drinking too much of a beverage while eating. It’s easy to dilute your stomach acid if you drink too much with a meal, including water. Limit your amount of fluids with meals to no more than eight ounces. Avoid beverages such as sodas and juices, which can impair overall digestion. Bone broth, on the other hand, can be very supportive when consumed with a meal. If you don’t want to make bone broth, you can purchase it here.
- Not eating enough protein. When one’s protein intake is reduced, whether consciously or not (as what happen to me when I became a vegetarian), your body automatically stops producing as much HCL because it’s not as necessary for a low protein diet. This can also create the lack of desire to want to consume meat since your body innately knows it can’t digest it well.
- Eating too many starchy carbohydrates. HCL is not needed and therefore not secreted when starches are consumed. If your diet is filled with lots of starchy foods, you may want to cut back, especially when eating proteins. It may be helpful to focus on lower carbohydrate foods such as vegetables that won’t interfere with HCL production.
Supporting Stomach Acid
Our body’s autonomic nervous system has two main signals. Sympathetic, aka fight or flight, allows us to react quickly in an emergency state, also known as the stressful state of the body. Your parasympathetic mode is the opposite; allowing the body to rest and digest. When consuming food we must be in a parasympathetic state in order to digest properly and for HCL to be secreted. This is another reason why you should never eat on the run or in a stressful state. It’s almost better to wait until you can have 10 minutes to eat in peace rather than shove food down your throat while running around, in the car, at your desk, or in a panic or worried state of mind. Your body can’t be resting and be in response mode at the same time. The body will ALWAYS prioritize immediate survival over long term survival. So systems that are not needed for you to survive in the moment shut down. We’re obviously past the point of having to run from an animal for our lives, but the same stress response from our nervous system fires when we trigger that sympathetic system in the modern world. That can look like exercising, a stressful job, being stuck in traffic, and emotional stress from family, friends, and relationships. All of the long-term survival mechanisms that are not needed in that immediate moment take a back seat, such as reproductive function, digestion, hormone balancing, metabolism and detoxification. Your body will focus on only whatever it needs to do in that moment to keep you alive. Therefore, eating on the run is going to severely impact your ability to digest your food properly. Many of my clients found improvements with digestive symptoms simply by making time to stop and eat mindfully.
Something else to keep in mind is digestion is not just about stomach acid, but it does begin with the secretion of HCL. It triggers the peristaltic wave that moves food through the digestive system (keeping one regular), and releases pancreatic enzymes to further breakdown macronutrients.
How to Increase Your HCL Levels
The most common symptoms of low HCL includes the following, especially after a meal with protein:
• Stomach discomfort of any type
Long term consequences and symptoms include:
• Bad breath
• Skin issues: acne, psoriasis, eczema, roseacea
• Nutrient deficiencies
If you feel like these symptoms are something you live with on a daily basis, supporting HCL production is something that might be able to bring you relief and eventually be able to address the long term symptoms that can develop from a lack of HCL.
The HCL Challenge
This is a test I use with almost every client that I work with. It’s a simple, effective and affordable way to see how your body reacts with additional acid, weaning out the possibility of a sensitive or thinning stomach lining, or ulcers that might be present, as this is when you do NOT want to be taking supplemental HCL. The test uses raw apple cider vinegar to test for a sensitivity, as this helps your body naturally produce HCL. If this is something you are ok with, then you are able to take a proactive approach in increasing stomach acid by taking a personalized dose of HCL that will be effective enough for you. It is VERY important that you find your personal dose to be able to digest your food appropriately. Start with 1 HCL capsule right before a meal, then increase 1 capsule at a time throughout the meal until you feel a slight burning sensation in your upper stomach. If there is a sufficient amount of stomach acid present you should feel this within 1-2 capsules, if not it may take you several capsules to feel the burning sensation. Don’t be afraid to increase your dose as much as you need to feel this. Note that if you’re up to 10 capsules without noticing any type of burning, this is an indication of very low stomach acid. See my instructions here on how to find your personal dose. If you stay consistent with taking HCL with every meal, over time your body will begin to produce HCL on its own. I use this high potency HCL for those in need to get levels up if they have symptoms of digestive disturbance.
Other ways to increase your HCL production:
- Raw Apple Cider Vinegar. This can be taken 5-10 minutes before meals to help support secretion of HCL. 1 tsp in 4-8oz of water.
- Bitter Herbs. For those who may not be able to handle raw apple cider vinegar or have a sensitive stomach, this liquid tonic can be extremely helpful. Take 1tsp mixed in 4oz of water 10 minutes before a meal to stimulate your body’s own HCL production.
- Fermented Foods. These super foods can be extremely beneficial in supporting protein breakdown due to their high enzyme content, but they also have the ability to stimulate your body’s own production of HCL. To get the most benefit, make sure and consume these with protein foods to support digestion. This is my favorite resource for purchasing fermented foods online.
Applying these simple tips before and during meals can do wonders in correcting your digestion. Restoring HCL levels is a crucial step in addressing underlying causes in everything from digestive symptoms to acne.
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