Low Stomach Acid? How To Heal This Uncomfortable Gut Problem with Functional Medicine
In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I see acid reflux and its associated symptoms far too often. While the common belief is that this condition is caused by an overabundance of stomach acid, it’s actually the opposite. Low stomach acid has been found to contribute to acid reflux, GERD, and many more uncomfortable symptoms. Let’s take a look at the role stomach acid plays in our health and how we can begin to overcome low stomach acid, naturally.
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What is stomach acid? What does it do?
Also known as gastric acid, stomach acid is a part of a healthy digestive process that aids your body in absorbing minerals and other nutrients into your bloodstream. To do this, stomach acid stimulates the release of enzymes that work to break down nutrients into usable forms by your body - like protein into amino acids. Stomach acid is also responsible for killing off any potentially harmful or pathogenic bacteria in your food to make it safe for consumption.
What happens when stomach acid levels are low?
Hypochlorhydria occurs when you don’t produce enough stomach acid. When your stomach acid levels are low it can lead to nutrient deficiencies and indigestion conditions like GERD and Acid Reflux.
Low stomach acid has also been associated with conditions like:
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Skin problems (acne, rashes, Psoriasis)
- Autoimmune conditions
Because your gut is the foundation of your entire health, low stomach acid can result in further gut problems and these downstream health issues.
What causes low stomach acid?
As we mentioned earlier, acid reflux and GERD aren’t actually caused by too much stomach acid. In reality, they are a result of a dysfunction of the lower esophageal valve that separates the lower end of the esophagus and the stomach, caused by intra-abdominal pressure that results in low stomach acid.
Everything from our Western diet, food intolerances, medications, chronic infections, environmental toxins, and chronic stress all contribute to both digestive inflammation and low stomach acid. This confluence of underlying factors increases intra-abdominal pressure, while inflammation could cause damage to the valve.
Because low stomach acid also contributes to SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), this in turn can lead to poor food digestion, more inflammation, and a vicious cycle of low stomach acid and uncomfortable symptoms. This is also why antacids are not a great long term solution as they only mask the symptoms and in fact, could be interfering with your body’s natural acid production.
Age is also a big contributing factor to low stomach acid with stomach acid levels continuing to decline over time.
Signs and symptoms of low stomach acid
Because stomach acid is so integral to the digestion process, low stomach acid can lead to nutrient deficiencies and digestive distress. Low stomach acid symptoms can include:
- Bad breath
- Abdominal pain/cramping
- Dry skin
- Thinning hair or hair loss
- Undigested food in stools
- Brittle nails
- Excessive burping
Recommendations for low stomach acid symptoms
Thankfully, there are many ways to ease your low stomach acid symptoms naturally. Instead of turning to antacids and other medications that only act as a bandaid, use these tools to target your symptoms head on.
1. Eat slower
Chewing helps activate essential digestive enzymes that can help with stomach acid production. With our busy schedules it is easy to scarf down food quickly between activities or on-the-go. Instead, prioritize sitting down for each meal - including snacks - in order to slow down and completely chew your food. This will also help you break down your food more thoroughly to further improve digestion.
2. Take digestive enzymes
When you don’t produce enough stomach acid it can inhibit the amount of digestive enzymes in your digestive system that are able to break down food. Digestive enzyme supplements can help restore proper digestion and pH levels in your stomach.
Just remember that you can’t supplement your way out of a poor diet. If your low stomach acid is due to a poor diet or stress you’ll want to focus on improving those areas of your health for long-term, sustainable healing. I recommend an “enzyme blend” that can be taken alongside your meals to cover all your bases for general digestive support.
3. Try digestive bitters
Digestive bitters are herbs that have a bitter taste including bitter melon, dandelion, and burdock root. They are taken with meals and act as a wake up call to your digestive system, encouraging the production of digestive enzymes. You can find digestive bitters in herbal tincture form but I personally love adding bitter greens into soups, salads, and stir-frys.
4. Eat more fermented foods
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha contain probiotics that can help improve digestion and low stomach acid. They can also help restore microbiome balance and soothe inflammation caused by low stomach acid.
5. Practice mindfulness
You can do everything on this list perfectly, but if you are feeding your body a slice of stress everyday you’ll likely still experience acid reflux and other symptoms of low stomach acid. Incorporating a regular mindfulness practice like breathwork, meditation, or journaling, can help bring you back to the present moment in times of stress and help calm your gut.
6. Try apple cider vinegar
Chances are you already have some apple cider vinegar in the back of your pantry. I’ve seen firsthand an improvement in my patients heartburn, acid reflux, and digestion when incorporating apple cider vinegar with their meals. This is because the acidity in ACV can improve lower pH and improve acid levels in your stomach.
You can find ACV in supplement form or dilute it in a glass of water to make it easier on your esophagus and prevent damage to your tooth enamel, especially when taking it regularly.
7. Clean up your diet
Changing your diet and cutting out processed foods in favor of whole foods like vegetables and clean animal protein is going to be one of the best things you can do to overcome low stomach acid. This step is foundational and will lead to sustainable, long-term healing since you are no longer eating inflammatory foods that continue to contribute to your symptoms.
Seeking help from a functional medicine doctor
If you have tried everything to no avail and are still struggling with low stomach acid, GERD, or acid reflux, it might be time to consult a functional medicine expert, especially if you are dealing with more serious downstream issues like leaky gut syndrome, skin problems, or autoimmunity.
In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, we work with you to identify what factors are contributing to your symptoms and come up with a plan to address them naturally according to your specific triggers.
If you are ready to learn more about how we can help you overcome this uncomfortable gut problem, you can check out our telehealth functional medicine consultation.
As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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