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We all know that the stomach secretes a pretty strong acid called hydrochloric acid (HCl), which is essential for proper digestion. In combination with the enzyme pepsin, which is also secreted by the stomach, HCl breaks down the proteins we eat like gluten and dairy, and many others.
Millions of Americans are taking acid blockers and anti-acid medications for the relief of occasional heartburn. While these strategies may offer temporary relief, acid blocking may do more harm than good in the long run.
Little-Known Roles of HCl
- What many of us don’t know about the stomach acid is that it is part of the immune system and in fact the very first real potent line of defense against ingested foreign invaders. One of the major functions of HCl is to destroy fungi, bacteria, viruses and parasites that are found in many of the foods we eat.
- HCl also plays an important role in the absorption of minerals like calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc. Blocking stomach acid production can lead to chronic vitamin, mineral and protein deficiencies, most notably bone density issues related to poor calcium absorption.
- Blocking the production of stomach acid may also lead to a B12 deficiency. HCl is required to make a protein in the stomach called the intrinsic factor, which is responsible for the absorption of B12. A B12 deficiency is an extremely common deficiency that causes numerous nerve, brain and heart health issues.
Low Stomach Acid Issues
Long-term acid blocking also forces the body to compensate by producing more of the hormone gastrin. This hormone signals the stomach to increase acid production. Excessive levels of gastrin have been linked to the uncontrolled growth of esophageal, pancreatic, and gastric cells.
Over time, the stomach cannot keep up with making extra HCl to offset the acid blocker, and soon HCl levels plummet. While initially, acid indigestion symptoms abate, they soon return. With low acid, a cascade of events take place.
To begin with, adequate acid is required to stimulate the flow of bile and pancreatic enzymes, which means that the lack of adequate acid brings any sense of good digestion to a grinding halt. As a result, foods and HCl linger in the stomach waiting for the bile and pancreatic enzymes to show up in order to buffer the HCl, and when they don’t show, the lingering foods and HCl cause further irritation to the stomach lining.
Undesirable bacteria such as H. pylori also proliferate in the stomach when the acids are low, irritating the stomach wall and causing another round of acid irritation.
Over time, foods that are normally emulsified by the strong acidity of HCl now act as irritants to the stomach lining. Perpetuating the cycle, this increases the risk of undesirable bacteria proliferating in the intestinal tract as a result of the stomach immunity compromise.
To avoid aggravating acid symptoms, avoid the following foods:
- Spicy and citrus foods
- Fermented and cultured foods
Also, avoid overeating and eating in a hurry or while stressed. Eating this way puts unnecessary pressure on the sphincters at the top and bottom of the stomach.
Drinking a large glass of water 15-30 minutes before a meal will pre-hydrate the stomach lining and act as a buffer for the stomach, signaling to the system that it is safe to make and secrete the needed HCl.