Fix low stomach acid to achieve better health

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Kate Kennedy (Photo: Tribune file photo) Buy Photo

When beginning to work with a new patient, naturopathic doctors often start by addressing gut health. The idea is that if a person isn’t breaking down their foods effectively, even if they’re eating a high quality diet, they’re suffering from chronic malnourishment. Correcting gut problems goes a long way towards improving health. If you need to take some supplements for a while to address a completely different condition, it doesn’t make sense to put the supplements into your system if you can’t absorb them and feel their benefits. A wide variety of gut issues often need some attention before a naturopath can help you with your other complaints.

When I ask my patients about their digestion, I’ve learned that people have often been living with gut issues for so long that they don’t even remember what good digestion feels like. A person may have blatant gastrointestinal symptoms like indigestion, heartburn, and gas and bloating after meals. If they also have ridges on their fingernails from poor protein digestion, muscle cramps from poor mineral absorption, or I suspect food sensitivities, I often start thinking about the status of the hydrochloric acid in their stomach.

Hydrochloric acid is produced by the stomach lining. Its job is to break down proteins, and prepare food to be further broken down by digestive enzymes from the pancreas. Good gut “bugs” or probiotics, thrive in a nice acidic stomach environment. Hypochlorhydria describes a condition of low stomach acid. Achlorhydria, a severe form of hypochlorhydria, is a complete lack of stomach acid. As we age, many people’s production of stomach acid becomes compromised. When my patients are older than 50, I ask questions about stomach acid. Many people don’t make enough, and about one third of people over the age of 60 make no stomach acid at all.

Aside from advancing age, one of the big risk factors for hypochlorhydria is the use of acid-blocking medications and antacids taken for long periods of time. Many people are walking around with chronic H. pylori infection in their stomachs. H. pylori is the bacteria that causes ulcers, and it can damage the gut lining and its ability to make stomach acid. Chronic stress affects the production of stomach acid. Having Native American or Hispanic heritage is also a risk factor. Bitter foods stimulate the flow of stomach acid, but we don’t have many of those foods in our diets any more. Coffee is bitter, but all the cream and sugar we use negates the bitterness.

Bacteria routinely enter the body on the food and water that we consume. Having a good amount of stomach acid protects against bacterial infections in the digestive tract. In addition to making protein available to the body, stomach acid is essential for breaking down foods that contain hard minerals like calcium, zinc, selenium, chromium and magnesium. Low stomach acid has been associated with a wide variety of health conditions such as asthma, skin conditions, food sensitivities, autoimmune conditions, anemia, hypoglycemia, osteoporosis, psoriasis, alcoholism and gastric cancer.

There are several different testing methods to assess whether low stomach acid is a problem. Once other problems such as ulcers, dyspepsia, pernicious anemia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and other stomach conditions have been ruled out, a naturopath can help you with this common problem. Sometimes the cause of heartburn can be too little stomach acid as opposed to too much. Sometimes people with hypochlorhydria stop eating meat, which affects their energy and overall health status. Many people drink too much water with their meals, as opposed to in between, which dilutes hydrochloric acid when they need it for digestion.

Gut health is a large topic that sometimes takes some work to solve. But once the gut function has been addressed and you achieve flawless digestion, all manner of health challenges can improve. Don’t settle for a bunch of digestive issues, poor absorption, and compromised protein and mineral status for one more day. Reclaim your gut health, and get back on the path to radiant good health.

Dr. Kate Kennedy is a naturopath at the Great Falls Holistic Health Clinic. Reach her at 406-727-6680.