By Jon Barron
With the amount of digestive problems facing consumers, it is not surprising that many health practitioners are continually being asked about low stomach acid and food allergies. It is an important topic, but before we can even talk about stomach acid, we need to understand how it fits in the digestive process.
Most patients believe that when you eat a meal, it drops into a pool of stomach acid, where it’s broken down, travels into the small intestine to have nutrients taken out, and then goes into the colon to be passed out of the body – if you’re lucky. Not quite.
What nature intended is that you eat enzyme-rich foods and chew your food properly. If you did that, the food would enter the stomach laced with digestive enzymes. These enzymes would then “pre-digest” your food for about an hour – actually breaking down as much as 75 percent of your meal.
Only after this period of “pre-digestion” are hydrochloric acid and pepsin introduced. The acid inactivates all of the food-based enzymes, but begins its own function of breaking down what is left of the meal, in combination with the acid-energized, protein-digesting enzyme pepsin. Eventually, this nutrient-rich food concentrate moves into the small intestine. Once this concentrate enters the small intestine, the acid is neutralized and the pancreas reintroduces digestive enzymes to the process. As digestion is completed, nutrients are passed through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream.
However, processing and cooking destroy enzymes in food. (Any sustained heat of approximately 118-129 degrees F destroys virtually all enzymes.) This means that, for most of us, the food entering our stomach is severely enzyme-deficient. The food then sits there for an hour, like a heavy lump, with very little pre-digestion taking place. It then enters our bloodstream with large undigested proteins that create CICs (circulating immune complexes) in the blood, which can lead to further problems such as food allergies. This forces the body to produce large amounts of stomach acid in an attempt to overcompensate. In addition to failing in this attempt (much of the meal still enters the small intestine largely undigested), there are two major consequences: either too much or too little stomach acid.
Too Much Stomach Acid
This is obvious. In an attempt to overcompensate for lack of enzymes in the food, the stomach produces an inordinate amount of stomach acid to compensate, leading to acid indigestion. Taking antacids or purple pills doesn’t actually solve the problem; it merely eliminates one of the symptoms. Ultimately, though, it passes even more quantities of poorly digested food into the intestinal tract, which leads to gas, bloating, bad digestion and chronic digestive disorders, in addition to blowing out your pancreas, which tries to compensate by producing huge amounts of digestive enzymes for use in the small intestine. All of this is exacerbated by foods and beverages such as alcohol (especially beer), high-sugar foods, and caffeinated foods (coffee, tea, etc.) that can actually double acid production.
The simple solution for most people with excess stomach acid is to supplement with digestive enzymes, which can digest up to 70 percent of the meal in the pre-acid phase, thus eliminating the need for large amounts of stomach acid and also taking tremendous stress off the digestive system and the pancreas.
One other factor that may be contributing to the problem is a hiatal hernia, in which part of the stomach can protrude through the diaphragm into the chest cavity, allowing food and stomach acid to back up into the esophagus. Combine a hiatal hernia with excess stomach acid and you have the potential for great distress. The standard treatment for severe hiatal hernias is laparoscopic surgery, with mixed results. Fortunately, there are natural alternatives that can be quite effective.
In either case, dietary changes and supplemental digestive enzymes are likely to produce significant results – without creating problems further down the digestive tract. Drinking 2-4 ounces of organic, stabilized, aloe vera juice every day also can help soothe irritated tissue in the esophagus and help balance out digestive juices in the stomach.
Too Little Stomach Acid
Follow the logic here for just a moment. If you spend years forcing your body to massively overproduce stomach acid to compensate for the lack of enzymes in your diet, what do you think the long-term consequences might be in terms of your ability to produce stomach acid?
Bingo! Eventually, your body’s capacity to produce stomach acid begins to fade, with a concomitant loss in your body’s ability to sufficiently process food in the stomach. The health consequences can be profound. Low production of stomach acid is quite common and becomes more prevalent with age. By age 40, approximately 40 percent of the population is affected, and by age 60, it’s an estimated 50 percent. A person over age 40 who visits a doctor’s office has about a 90 percent probability of having low stomach acid. Consequences can include any or all of the following:
- Not only is there insufficient stomach acid to break down food, there also is insufficient acidity to optimize the digestive enzyme pepsin, which requires a pH of around 2.0. This results in partial digestion of food, leading to gas, bloating, belching, diarrhea/constipation, autoimmune disorders, skin diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, and a host of intestinal disorders, such as Crohn's and IBS.
- It is estimated that 80 percent of people with food allergies suffer from some degree of low acid production in the stomach.
- Many vitamins and minerals require proper stomach acid in order to be properly absorbed, including: calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid. Vitamin B12 in particular requires sufficient stomach acid for proper utilization. Without that acid, severe B12 deficiency can result. (Note: Ionic delivery systems can bypass this problem.)
- With low acidity and the presence of undigested food, harmful bacteria are more likely to colonize the stomach and interfere with digestion. Normal levels of stomach acid help to keep the digestive system free of harmful bacteria and parasites.
It's worth noting that symptoms of low acidity include: bloating, belching, and flatulence immediately after meals; indigestion, diarrhea or constipation; and heartburn. Is it just me, or doesn't this list sound very similar to the symptoms associated with too much stomach acid? In fact, up to 95 percent of people who think they are suffering from excess stomach acid are actually suffering from the exact opposite condition. The use of antacids and purple pills then become exactly the wrong treatment, since they exacerbate the underlying condition while temporarily masking the symptoms.
Most food allergies are actually the result of proteins that don’t ever
break down completely and enter the bloodstream as allergens. Although protease enzymes play a primary role in breaking down these proteins, stomach acid also plays a major role. As we’ve discussed, pepsin, the stomach’s protein-digesting enzyme, is “acid energized.” Low stomach acid levels compromise pepsin, which means incomplete digestion of proteins. This can contribute significantly to food allergies.
The bottom line here is that most people are very confused about the role stomach acid plays in health. Most people think they have too much, when in fact they have too little; treat the symptom and suppress stomach acid production, ultimately leading to long-term health problems; and ultimately lose the capacity to produce sufficient stomach acid as a result of dietary abuse and continual use of medications to suppress the body’s ability to produce it.
Don’t get into that trap. Here’s how to maintain your body’s ability to produce stomach acid:
- Use digestive enzymes with all your meals.
- Use probiotic supplements to help reduce food allergies.
- Use proteolytic enzyme supplements without food to eliminate large protein food allergens from the bloodstream.
- Finally, if needed, use apple cider vinegar (1-4 tablespoons in water with honey at each meal) or betaine hydrochloride supplements to make up for stomach acid insufficiency.
At age 16, Jon Barron worked under his father, one of the world's first food technologists, at a large grocery chain. They developed a new line of food products that sparked Jon's interest in food formulation and natural remedies. He forged ahead not, only with a nutraceutical company and a nonprofit foundation, but also with product formulation consulting. Today, Jon is working with leading companies such as Nestlé's spin-off, Sweet Success Enterprises, to make healthy food and beverage products more consumer-friendly and accessible.