Functional Nutrition Blog

Focusing on gut health and Functional nutrition

Stomach Acid: Impacts on Digestion

Apr 23, 2021 | Gut Health, Nutrition

Stomach acid and digestive issues:  a tale as old as time. Digestive issues that stem from inadequate stomach acid levels are frustrating to deal with. Luckily, there are strategies you can implement to diminish, heal from, and correct these negative symptoms!

While there are numerous factors that can impact digestion (including medications, thyroid conditions, and abdominal surgeries, among others), this blog will discuss the impact of inadequate stomach acid as well as action steps to take.

If you have been dealing with persistent, disruptive digestive discomfort, including bloating, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn or abdominal pain, keep reading…

Low stomach acid (Hypochlorhydria)

First of all, symptoms of low stomach acid (HCl) are VERY similar to those of inadequate stomach acid.  So a lack of HCl is actually VERY often the unknown issue that can be made worse with the addition of PPI medications.

Why is stomach acid so important?

Let’s find out how stomach acid impacts digestion:

The acidic environment of the stomach plays three major roles: 

  1. Kills potential pathogens/invaders

  2. Aids in nutrient absorption via enzyme activation

  3. Triggers digestive enzymes to be released

When HCl is low, you are more susceptible to overgrowth of “bad” bacteria (aka dysbiosis), nutrient deficiencies, specifically iron and B12, and maldigestion of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

HCl stimulates the pancreas and the bile to release enzymes that break down food and help digest it. If stomach acid is low, you may have trouble digesting macronutrients (fats, proteins and carbohydrates) and absorbing micronutrients (iron, B12, calcium) due to a lack of gastric and pancreatic enzymes. 

Causes:

-H. Pylori infection (read more about H. pylori and heartburn)

-Zinc deficiency

-Chronic stress

-Medications (including proton pump inhibitors and certain pain medications) 

-Aging 

 Long-term effects:

Over time, an imbalance in stomach acid can indirectly lead to SIBO and candida. Basically, this means bacteria and/or fungus starts to overgrow in the gut. Low HCl results in a vulnerability to gastrointestinal infections from bacteria and parasites. A common root causes of dysbiosis is having had food poisoning (or “traveler’s diarrhea”) in the past. 

If you have symptoms of low stomach acid, it is important to assess for possible nutrient deficiencies including B12, calcium, and iron. Based on your symptoms, a healthcare provider will assess which tests are appropriate but a full panel micronutrient testing is typically available through integrative and functional dietitians and practitioners.

Action steps:

If you suspect that your digestion is impaired or that you have low stomach acid, here are some things you can consider:

-Designate specific meal times! Practice mindful eating by chewing food thoroughly, and eating without distractions to reduce stress around meals.

-Increase your consumption of zinc rich foods. Discuss with a healthcare provider if zinc supplementation is right for you.  You can also do extensive micronutrient testing with integrative and functional practitioners.

-Consume bitter foods such as ginger, dill and arugula at meals to stimulate the release of digestive enzymes and the migrating motor complex (the movement of food through the GI tract) 

You can grab Kylie’s “Guide to Greens” that will share a few recipes using these types of bitters!

 

-Supplement with digestive enzymes while you treat the root cause (find some High Quality Sources here)

 

-Prioritize high fiber foods at mealtimes to feed the “good” gut bacteria (at least 25 g of fiber for women, 38 g for men / day)

 

Note that this is not meant to diagnose any condition. It is best to consult with a trusted provider if you are experiencing unexplained symptoms.

 

Written with Maija Erickson, Dietitian Intern with Strata Nutrition. Maija is a recent nutrition and dietetics graduate from Boston, Mass. She works as a personal trainer and has helped her clients to improve their running, skiing, and golfing performance through a functional approach to training and better nutrition habits.

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