The stomach is the most underrated and overlooked organ in your body and yet it is probably the most important organ in relation to your overall health. Stomach acid should be the hellfire that kills all pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, worms and yeasts. With a pH of around 1.5-3, it breaks down proteins to the smallest level to be reassembled as amino acids, peptides and other protein materials. These can be used by the body to repair muscle, used as enzymes in metabolic pathways, as hormones or used to make neurotransmitters.
Apart from being your first line of defence from the outside world and the breaking down of proteins, the stomach has other functions. On the stomach lining, there are cells called parietal cells. They produce a secretion called intrinsic factor which cleaves vitamin B12 from dietary protein. B12 is essential for red blood cells, the nervous system and DNA function. Those with a vitamin B12 deficiency may experience fatigue, pale skin, weakness, brain fog, memory loss and tingling in the hands and feet. (Harvard Health). If you don’t have optimal quality stomach acid you are at risk of a B12 deficiency.
Additionally, optimal stomach acid is required for the absorption of calcium. Calcium plays many roles in human health including muscle function, vascular elasticity, cell signalling and bone health, just to name a few (Kopic & Geibel, 2013). Optimal stomach acid is also required for the absorption of dietary iron and studies have shown that poor quality stomach acid leads to iron deficiency anaemia (Betesh et al., 2015). Iron deficiency symptoms include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, pale skin, light-headedness, abnormal heart rhythm and chest pain (Mayo Clinic).
Poor quality stomach acid may lead to increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut), SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), candida overgrowth and impair the intestinal microbiome. Leaky gut can lead to nutrient malabsorption, an increased risk of autoimmune disease and a decrease of immune function (Mu et al., 2017).
Diets that are high in sugar, refined carbs and trans fats such as processed foods, takeaways, sugary drinks and alcohol can diminish the quality of your stomach acid. This can cause reflux, heartburn and indigestion, as well as other problems downstream in the digestive tract. The short-term solution that many people reach for is to take some form of antacid in the belief that they have too much acid production.
10 signs that you have poor quality stomach acid
- Skin conditions such as Acne, Eczema, Psoriasis and Rosacea (dilated capillaries on the nose and cheeks)
- Brittle nails
- Anaemia – vitamin B12 deficiency (pernicious anaemia) and Iron deficiency anaemia
- Gastritis – inflammation of the stomach lining
- Calcium deficiency can lead to hip fractures in the elderly
- Increased risk of H pylori infection that can lead to ulcers
- Increased risk of depression due to a decrease in the synthesis of neurotransmitters
- Increased risk of Autoimmune disease due to increased intestinal permeability (Leaky Gut)
- Poor gut function including food sensitivities, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and burping
- Decreased immune function as poor gut health disrupts the diversity of the microbiome, the seat of your immune function
Antacids are over the counter medications that come in liquid or tablet form. They are relatively safe when used correctly however there are side effects. Antacids that contain magnesium may cause diarrhoea. Those containing aluminium may cause constipation and may impair calcium uptake (MedlinePlus, n.d.). You should not take antacids any longer than 2 weeks.
Rather than taking medications, you should aim to improve the quality of your stomach acid. The first step is to avoid drinking fluids when you eat. Fluids only serve to raise the pH of your digestive fluid making it less effective. You should also count how many times you chew your food. People who wolf their food down are more apt to get heartburn and indigestion. Try chewing slowly. Be mindful of your food by savouring the taste and textures. Chew up to 40 times or more if you are eating protein. You could also consider taking betaine or digestive enzymes to improve the quality of your digestive fluids.
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Betesh, A. L., Santa Ana, C. A., Cole, J. A., & Fordtran, J. S. (2015). Is achlorhydria a cause of iron deficiency anaemia? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 102(1), 9–19. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.097394
Harvard Health. (n.d.). Vitamin B12 deficiency can be sneaky, harmful – Harvard Health. Retrieved June 24, 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/vitamin-b12-deficiency-can-be-sneaky-harmful-201301105780
Kopic, S., & Geibel, J. P. (2013). Gastric acid, calcium absorption, and their impact on bone health. Physiological Reviews, 93(1), 189–268. https://doi.org/10.1152/physrev.00015.2012
Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Iron deficiency anemia – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic. Retrieved June 24, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355034
MedlinePlus. (n.d.). Taking antacids: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000198.htm
Mu, Q., Kirby, J., Reilly, C. M., & Luo, X. M. (2017). Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases. Frontiers in Immunology, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00598