Its low pH or acidity provides a natural immunity by killing invading bugs ingested through food or contact with the outside world. This stops many things like bacteria and parasites from proceeding further into our digestive system where they can do more harm.
The acid in the stomach is also the first substance to start breaking down our foods, especially protein and fats. This digestive process is important as here food is broken into smaller components to release nutrients and help absorption later in the digestive system. For example, stomach acid triggers the conversion of the enzyme pepsinogen to pepsin, which begins the breakdown of proteins. It is also essential to activate the creation of Vitamin B12.
What can go out of balance?
When stomach acid and structures of the stomach become out of balance our digestive system is impacted in many ways. For instance if stomach acid becomes too weak this can lead to poorly digested food, poor vitamin and mineral absorption, low vitamin B12, indigestion and susceptibility to bacterial and parasitic invasion. Lower stomach acid can occur as we age, but also through:
drinking too much water with meals
regular use of antacids
long term use of medicines that inhibit stomach acid production
Excess stomach acid can also lead to discomfort such as reflux and can be caused by many factors such as stress, alcohol, excess caffeine, over eating and sometimes from food that you may be intolerant to. I also find that food intolerances can be a causative factor in acid reflux, burping, belching or stomach discomfort.
Further problems can occur if the protective mucosal layer of the stomach is damaged. This protective substance creates a barrier to stop the highly acid contents of the stomach coming into contain with the walls of the stomach. When this occurs it can cause painful stomach ulcers. One of the main culprits of damaged stomach mucosa is the bacteria called Helicobacter pylori, which has a tendency to attack the stomach lining, although aspirin and alcohol can be damaging too. Reflux can also occur when the opening to the stomach does not work well, allowing acid to go up into the oesophagus.
Signs of imbalanced stomach acid
Gas, bloating, acid reflux, belching, abdominal discomfort
If you look at your finger nails at the bottom of the nail attachment you will see a pale semi-circle called a half moon. These should be on all nails, but often in the case of low stomach acid they may be missing except on the thumb
Since many of the symptoms of low and excess stomach acid are similar you can do this simple stomach acid self-test. If you have indigestion take a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar on its own or with a little warm water. If symptoms improve stomach acid may be low, if they worsen its likely to be too high.
What could we consider to bring the stomach back into balance?
Of course everyone is different and underlying causes have to be addressed. Here are some factors that I would consider when working in this area.
Increase Low HCL (Hydrochloric Acid)
Lemon juice in water in the mornings or 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar before meals are easy things to introduce into your diet that can help keep a strong digestive system into your old age
Increase consumption of sour foods and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi or culinary vinegars is dressings
Avoid milk or water with meals
If on long-term use of protein pump inhibitors or antacid tablets address the underlying factors so they are no longer needed to reduce stomach acid
Betaine Hydrochloride can be supplemented in cases where levels are very low
Decrease high HCL
Change diet to cut out alcohol, caffeine, fatty and processed foods
Use herbs or techniques to manage stress
Identify foods that may cause aggravation or intolerance
General stomach improvements
Cooling (peppermint) or warming digestive herbs (ginger, cinnamon, fennel) can ease symptoms
Taking digestive enzymes can help the breakdown of foods
Improve the mucosal layer using herbs such as aloe vera, slippery elm, marshmallow, chamomile and liquorice - be aware different herbs will suit different people
If you do have stomach pain and ulcers see your GP and they can test you for Helicobacter pylori
Toning the sphincters of the stomach so acid does not come up and food goes down
Calcium or magnesium can be helpful depending on whether the valves of the stomach are too tight or too weak