Creating and maintaining the appropriate acid balance in the stomach is a hugely important yet challenging task. When acid imbalance is prolonged it may result in unhealthy absorption and digestion within the GI tract. It's important for stomach acid to be in balance not only because it help us breakdown and absorb nutrients, but it creates a much needed and important barrier to invading organisms.
Hydrochloric acid (HCL) is naturally secreted in the stomach in order to digest food in order to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Many people have a deficiency of this acid, which can lead to other vitamin deficiencies and chronic imbalances. After the age of 50, the body's ability to produce HCL begins to decline. Chronic stress also tends to deplete HCL, characterized by consistent indigestion, and resulting nutritional deficiencies.
Stomach acid is secreted from parietal cells, which are in charge of making HCL. This highly acidic environment helps to breakdown proteins, activate digestive enzymes, and facilitate in absorption. Parietal cells are hugely important because of the role they play in making the HCL.
Normal function of parietal cells can be affected by different factors such as chronic inflammation, stress, or free radical activity. They can also be damaged by the overuse of antacids. When HCL is low, the food in the stomach is not digested quickly, and therefore the food lingers longer than it is suppose to, resulting in fermentation, and the increase of the wrong type of acid.
Balanced HCL levels also help to destroy organisms swallowed in food (preventing parasitic infection). Therefore low stomach acid carries an increased risk of yeast, mold and bacterial infections – invaders that don't belong in the GI tract and otherwise would be relegated out of it with proper biochemical balance. In extreme cases, low HCL, also known as achlorhydria, can lead to stomach cancer if left untreated.
Fortunately, there are many natural ways to increase HCL in the stomach. Adding a natural version of hydrochloric acid in supplement form can help improve absorption of nutrients and aid in digestion. However, when it comes to digestive enzymes it's important to remember that when used in excess, the body begins to rely on them therefore creating less on its own. Digestive enzymes can be a useful approach for a short period of time, or can be used with foods that are difficult to digest.
Low HCL and Acne/Rosacea:
Many clients have come to me with rosacea, that butterfly-like red rash that stretches across the bridge of the nose and cheeks, sometimes also covering the forehead and chin. Then there’s acne rosacea or just acne that is also a major complaint.
By the time they find me, they’ve usually accumulated a list of western interventions trying to get their complexion back which includes topical creams, steroids which thin the lining of their gut (creating more gut infections/issues) and give the adrenals a run for their money, or antibiotics (which ultimately make your digestive and skin health worse…ugh).
Back when I had raging Candida and lots of gut infections, I had very bad rosacea. People would comment on how “flushed” I was all the time and I would feel embarrassed (and get more red ;). I had no idea it was connected to low HCL!
As the saying goes, if I only knew then what I know now…. 🙂
Well now you know that rosacea and acne are connected to low HCL.
There are about 5 key medical doctors who’ve studied gastric secretions with rosacea to find out in clinical trials that 75% of patients with rosacea have low stomach acid.
Furthermore to speak to the root cause, Japanese researchers have found that 2/3 of individuals with rosacea are actually infected with the H. pylori (helicobacter pylori) which routinely causes low stomach acid and ulcers.
These studies were originally published all the way back in 1931 in the Cal West Medical Journal and are starting to come back around again. Mainstream medicine and dermatologists often ignore this link and continue to treat rosacea aggressively with pharmaceuticals that further exacerbate the true imbalance, hence my reason for writing this blog – to share a little truth and hope it spreads and helps a lot of folks who don’t think there is any other alternative.
A Food-Based Way to Balance Stomach Acid
I love learning from Asian practices on how to use food as medicine. That is where this recipe for the “Ginger Pickle” was born. In India, they use a homemade pickled ginger for training the body to secrete adequate stomach acid. Also, in Japan, pickled ginger is routinely served with raw fish to protect the system from any potential parasites in the fish.
The Ginger Pickle works famously and is easy to prepare. I show you how in the video above. Here’s the recipe:
- One full ginger root peeled (the size would cover the palm of your hand 1.5x), peeled and shredded with a carrot shaver or cheese grater
- Juice of one full, organic lemon
- 1 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt
Mix together and put in a jar. Let “pickle” overnight and take ½-1 teaspoon before bigger meals daily for 2-4 weeks.
Supplements to Balance Stomach Acid
I like to use the little-known Trikatu, an Ayuverdic herbal blend of herbs and spices that acts almost like an adaptogen. It helps the body produce more of its own HCL and digestive enzymes, thereby increasing nutrient absorption. It’s also a gentler approach than using straight, HCL – although I have witnessed immeasurable times the near-magic that HCL supplementation can do as well.
This is why I’m sharing with you what is called the HCL challenge. In the HCL challenge, we supplement with HCL to the point of burning, and then back off by 1. By repeating this process, one can challenge the body to begin to produce its own natural amounts of HCL again.
Before you jump right in to taking HCL, you should read up on Dr. Wright’s info from his book, Why Stomach Acid is Good for You because he highly advises against taking HCL if you are taking any kind of pharmaceutical or over the counter anti-inflammatory like Prednisone, aspirin, or ibuprofen. These medications can damage the lining of the gastrointestinal tract and adding HCL to the mix could aggravate that or increase the risk of an ulcer.
“This simple test can help you determine whether you have the appropriate level of hydrochloric acid in your stomach for optimal digestion. You should not complete this test, however, if you have ulcers or are currently taking antacid medications.
Begin by taking 1 capsule of betaine hydrochloride (BH) before your largest meal of the day. You should feel a burning or warming sensation in your stomach or upper abdomen. You may also feel slightly “acidic,” or as though you have indigestion. Any reaction of this nature indicates you should stop taking the pills and that your stomach acid is sufficient. This is a good test to repeat each year since stomach acid levels tend to decrease with age as well as stress.
If no reaction is felt after taking the BH, repeat the process the following day with 2 pills before your largest meal. If you still do not feel anything, continue to increase by one pill per day until you feel any change in your digestive system or you reach the maximum of 14 pills. Remember, you should feel something after one or two pills – this is normal. Taking more without feeling any response is a definite indication your stomach acid level is low.
Once you reach the point at which you feel the warming or burning sensation it’s important to not cease taking the HCL capsules. In fact, you have just uncovered your level of deficiency. Simply take one less pill the next day and remain at this number of pills daily until the warming sensation returns. Continue to decrease in this manner by one pill each time you feel the warming sensation. This weaning down process restores your stomach acid levels.
Be patient and stick with it. This process will ensure you have just the right amount of stomach acid – not too much and not too little –for excellent nutrient absorption, one of the key secrets to looking and feeling your best every day.”
What Brands are Best?
As you know, I research supplement quality sort of obsessively because efficacy directly correlates to the quality of the supplements. In the video above I had Solaray but that was only because I ran out at home and that was all they had at Whole Foods the night before the show. It contains maltodextrin so I much prefer the quality of these four brands if you are going to supplement with HCL or employ the HCL challenge:
Other Strategies to Support Stomach Acid:
- 16 oz of room temperature (mineralized) water with 2 teaspoons of raw organic apple cider vinegar upon waking.
- Stress management such as breath work, yin yoga, or meditation.
- Test pH levels in the urine and saliva. Ideal pH is between 6.8-7.2.
- Increase dietary antioxidants
- Chew your food!
- Increase consumption of garlic. Allium, a substance that occurs naturally in garlic, helps prevent ulcers caused by the Helicobacter pylori (h. pylori) bacteria.
- Decrease consumption of coffee, tea, tobacco, sugar, alcohol, spices from hot peppers/hot sauce, and fried foods – all deplete HCL and thin the gut lining.
- Give your body time to digest. Try to go to bed before 10pm when digestion becomes active again.
For those interested in learning more about our 5 Steps to Gut Healing approach, details are at gutthrive.com. Or, if you already know about Gut Thrive and are ready to reboot your entire digestive system with us, join us here!