There is a health condition, called hypochlorhydria, that can lead to digestive issues starting with bloating, gas, and constipation. This is when your stomach is not producing enough stomach acid.
Stomach acid is also referred to as gastric acid or juice. This fluid is produced by special cells lining our stomach, called parietal, every time we eat something. There is a nerve in our body, called the vagal nerve, that helps turn on the production of this stomach acid.
Our body produces about a half a gallon of stomach acid every day. It is compromised mostly of hydrochloric acid, or HCl.
The stomach has other cells, called epithelial, that protect us from damage by this acid by creating mucus and a bicarbonate that coat the inside of the stomach.
Stomach acid is an important part of our digestive system as well as our immune system. It helps us break down food into vital nutrients and keeps bad bugs from getting into our gastrointestinal tract.
When gastric acid gets low, an imbalance of gut bacteria can happen. Harmful bacteria, that we get from food or the environment, are usually killed by this acidic environment. Stomach acid makes a pretty inhospitable place for bacterial growth.
One bacteria that can grow when there is not enough acid is called Helicobacter pylori. H. pylori infections can lead to inflammation, pain, nausea, and if chronic, ulcers in our stomach. Sufficient stomach acid may help keep this bacteria in check.
Nutrient malabsorption can also happen when proteins aren’t fully broken down due to low gastric juice. This can affect absorption of vitamin B12, folate, iron and other minerals like calcium and magnesium.
Leaky gut and resulting food sensitivities can also be a problem from improperly digested starches. These will feed pathogenic bacteria and lead to their overgrowth in the small intestine. This causes the space, or junctions, between cells lining our intestines to loosen.
When undigested proteins and other food particles get past these junctions and into our body our immune system starts to react. The body looks at these particles as foreign invaders and begins to create antibodies. Thus we develop sensitivities, even allergies.
The delivery of bile and enzymes is stimulated by adequate stomach acid. Our pancreas can get stressed due to over exertion when stomach acid is low. It produces and stores enzymes in an attempt to further digest the food that didn’t get broken down in our stomachs.
At times heartburn can be caused by too low of stomach acid, not too high. Usually stomach acid levels trigger our body to close the lower esophageal sphincter tightly. If the acid levels are too low, fluid can escape into the lower part of our esophagus and cause a burning sensation.
The stomach may also slow down how quickly food goes into the small intestine, by delaying opening the pyloric sphincter. This leaves more time for any overgrown bacteria to feed on the food in the stomach.
Bacteria produce gas when they eat as a byproduct of the fermentation that is going on. This increase in pressure can cause you to burp and bring acid to places it doesn’t belong.
Acid reflux, or GERD, can be painful and lead to more serious problems. Other signs of low stomach acid can include bad breath, undigested food in stools, an aversion to meat, weak fingernails, and not getting enough iron in your diet.
There are many approaches to addressing low stomach acid. You may even consider reducing bacterial overgrowth, increasing digestive enzymes, and settling down the intestinal inflammation that leads to leaky gut. Come on down if you’d like to talk about all this some more.
Scott Porter, a functional medicine pharmacist, is the director of the Center for Functional Nutrition at Sandpoint Super Drug.