Stomach acid, also known as Gastric Acid or HCL (hydrochloric acid), is a key player in healthy digestion.
It is our first line of defence against pathogens like viruses, bacteria and fungi (i.e. Sibo, Candida, Parasites...yikes!) and is heavily involved in the absorption of key vitamins and minerals by ionizing them so that they can be properly absorbed further down the digestive tract. HCL is also needed to activate an enzyme called Pepsin, which our body uses to digest proteins.
However, low stomach acid (: ) is incredibly common and is often at the root of many symptoms and gut imbalances.
Gut Imbalances & Symptoms associated with Low Stomach Acid
Chronic Fungal overgrowth (Candida)
Bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
Undigested food in stools
Multiple food sensitivities
Bloating, belching and gas immediately after meals
Irregular bowels (constipation, diarrhea or both)
Intestinal permeability (often called “leaky gut”)
Nutrient deficiencies, especially Iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12
Cracked fingernails and / or dry skin
What causes Stomach Acid to be Low?
Healthy digestion depends on the Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) being activated, and the PNS can only be activated when we are in a relaxed and restful state. When we are in a stressed out state, the PNS shuts off and the SNS (the Sympathetic Nervous system) takes over.
The SNS is our 'fight or flight' system and when activated, it shunts all of our energy to the extremities of the body. Blood flow goes to the arms and legs, and adrenaline and cortisol are secreted as we prepare to either 'fight' or 'run'.
When this happens, digestion is completely put on the back burner: We secrete significantly less HCL, significantly less enzymes, and there is generally less movement within our digestive tract.
#2 Zinc deficiency
Zinc is a critical mineral that the body uses to produce HCL. When we are deficient, HCL levels tend to be lower. Foods high in Zinc include pumpkin seeds, oysters, seafood, beans, lentils and lean proteins like chicken and poultry.
#3 Diets high in Sugar, Processed Food and Alcohol
Processed foods, sugars and excessive amounts of alcohol create inflammation in the body. Inflammation generates stress, which negatively effects the production of HCL.
#4 Chronic use of Acid Blockers
Acid blockers like Tums or Gavascon are super popular for dealing with heartburn. But contrary to popular belief, Heartburn is usually caused by having too little stomach, not too much. So if stomach acid is low and we continuously pop these acid blockers, we are left with pretty much nothing!
#5 Eating too fast and not chewing
When we eat quickly, we are not properly chewing. Chewing is a form of mechanical digestion that sends signals to the brain to get ready for a meal by producing HCL.
#6 Too much Coffee
Coffee actually stimulates the production of HCL, but the stomach can only produce so much, so if we are overdoing it on the caffeine all day, we won't be able to produce enough HCL to digest our actual meals.
What can you do? Tips for increasing Stomach Acid naturally:
Bitter Foods: Eating bitter foods at the start of a meal can stimulate the digestive system and promote the production of HCL. My favourites include radishes, dandelion greens, arugula, broccolini and radicchio
Apple Cider Vinegar: Mix a bit of apple cider vinegar into a few ounces of water and drink it 5-10 minutes before meals. *Note: If you experience any burning, discontinue.
Lemon Water: Enjoying warm water with lemon in the mornings is a great way to get the digestive system awakened. It can also be helpful to take a spoonful of fresh lemon juice before meals to stimulate HCL production.
Snack on raw Pumpkin Seeds: These are full of Zinc, a critical mineral for HCL production.
Chew Chew Chew: The act of chewing sends signals to the brain that it is time to prepare for a meal (aka HCL secretion!). Avoid eating too quickly and chew your food at least 10 times before swallowing.
Stress Management & Deep Breathing: Stress depletes HCL. If you are feeling overly stressed at meal time, try taking 3 long, deep breaths before starting to eat. This activates the Parasympathetic nervous system.
Look at, smell and anticipate food before eating: We have an entire phase of Digestion that takes place before food even hits our mouths. This is called Cephalic digestion, and it is activated by the site, smell and anticipation of food. Cephalic digestion signals the brain to prepare for a meal - AKA to begin secreting HCL!
Avoid drinking too much liquid before, during and after a meal: Liquids dilute stomach acid, so it is best to avoid large amounts within 30 minutes of eating.