How Low is Your Stomach Acid and Why Does it Matter?
Written by: Rhonda Keagy, FNTP
Repeatedly feeling bloated, gassy or just plain uncomfortable after a meal could be an indication that your stomach acid is too low. Yes, that’s right – too low. It has long been thought that those feelings corresponded with having too much acid in the stomach and many over the counter remedies, like Tums, Rolaids and a host of other proton pump inhibitor type products (Prilosec, and the like) have been utilized to stop the discomfort from occurring. But as many that have been on these remedies for years can attest, they really only serve to block the pain and discomfort when it occurs (or just before), but as soon as another meal is eaten the symptoms return.
Why is That So?
Those remedies are meant to reduce stomach acid considerably to bring down the pain and discomfort, but by doing so, the stomach acid that was already too low has now gotten even lower. Low acid does not digest food well, so the cycle repeats itself over time. Acid, in the right proportion, in the stomach is necessary to begin the process of digestion by breaking down the nutrients in our food. It aids in triggering the release of crucial enzymes from both the gallbladder and the pancreas. Without proper stomach acid nutrients cannot be extracted and over time the digestive system weakens, and the immune system becomes overworked.
But I feel a burning in my chest or when I belch, isn’t that acid? Yes it is. But acid is acid and it will burn in an area other than your stomach (like your esophagus) no matter how much there is…..or in this case, isn’t. Your stomach acid is still too low to adequately process the foods that you are eating without them churning too long in the stomach and further increasing your stomach PH toward a more alkaline state.
So, if your stomach acid is really too low, then why did your doctor give you a remedy to make it go even lower? The answer here is simple -- because you complained you had pain and it is their job to help you no longer feel pain. Providing you with a prescription or remedy that takes away that pain and discomfort, is just what they will do for immediate relief without ever getting to the root of the real issue for the pain in the first place. If your pain disappears then what’s the complaint?
But the good news is that you do not need a doctor’s help to determine if you have low stomach acid. There are a couple of tests you can do from home that can indicate this for you.
Although spending about $350 for a professional stomach acid test kit will be more accurate, you can still get a close to accurate result from “homemade” tests just by repeating these tests more than once.
Baking Soda Test
It is recommended that you do this test no less than 3 times to get close to accurate results*. This test will cost you for a box of baking soda only but can be enough to alert you to a stomach acid deficiency over the course of just a couple of days.
1.Do this test first thing in the morning before you put anything at all in your mouth to eat or drink (including toothpaste!).
2. Mix a ¼ teaspoon of baking soda in 4-ounces of cold water.
3. Drink the solution and then, grab your watch.
If you create a hearty belch in less than 3 minutes, your acid level is good. If you develop a belch after the 3-minute mark or not at all, your stomach acid is low.
*It is important to know that this test is not accurate enough to rule out that you do not have low stomach acid if you belch before the 3-minute mark every time. Surprisingly it is speculated that 90% of adults have low stomach acid, so chances are still good that you may fall into that category.
Betaine HCL Pepsin Test
It is recommended that you do this test 2 times. This test will cost you for a bottle of Betaine HCL with Pepsin – about $10-$12. Look for a bottle with a capsule of less than 700mgs for this test. You can find these capsules in your local health food store (best!) or online for home delivery. Once you have your product, you are ready.
1. Consume a meal containing at least 5-6 ounces (measure it out, this is important) of high protein meat.
2. During the meal, take 1 of the Betaine HCL capsules with water.
3. Finish the meal and then start “listening” to your body.
4. If you feel perfectly normal with no stomach irritation after the meal and up to an hour, you likely have low stomach acid. If you feel some stomach irritation by way of a burning sensation*, heaviness (like you ate too much) or a feeling of warmth/heat, then you are not likely to have low stomach acid.
*To get rid of a feeling of burning you can mix ½ teaspoon of baking soda in about 4 ounces of water and drink it or just wait an hour, it will dissipate.
So, You Determine you have Low Stomach Acid, So Now What Do You Do?
If you perform a stomach acid test and you do have low stomach acid, what can be done to set it right. Here are a few suggestions to help boost your acid level to get to the root of the issue and get rid of the pain and discomfort for good without the need for medication:
1. Chew, Chew, Chew your food. The more you can pulverize your food BEFORE you swallow it, the less work your digestive system needs to do to break it down. With less work, it can be more effective at what it does have to do and make it happen smoothly.
2. Make sure you eat in peace. It may be tempting to eat “on the fly” or shovel down a meal on your way out the door, but the stress of doing so can slow down your digestive system and food will have a difficult time going through the tubes. This rule also counts where emotional stress is concerned as well. If you are under emotional stress, it is best not to eat (or eat very lightly) and rely on liquids only until you physically pass the stress.
3. Consider supplementation with the Betaine HCL with pepsin. 1 capsule with each meal is enough and you should only need to do this short term until you can pass these tests again without issue. This supplement is your best bet as most people will usually need to supplement with it as a replacement for the low acid. It is thought that Betaine HCL will retrain your stomach to get to the correct pH levels over time. What is known though is that it will allow your digestion to work correctly in the interim.
4. Natural supplement options include apple cider vinegar and digestive bitters. But most people will usually need to supplement with Betaine HCL as a replacement for the low acid. It is thought that Betaine HCL will retrain your stomach to get to the correct pH levels over time. What is known is it will allow your digestion to work correctly in the interim.
There is an important caveat here to testing for stomach acid. If your stomach acid has been low for a long time and you have treated it with OTC product, you may have caused lesions in the stomach lining that will need to be healed. GI healing can be accomplished with the stomach acid correction method (Betaine HCL with pepsin) being done slowly in conjunction with it utilizing a healing supplement for the stomach lining (Gastrozyme or GI Resolve by Biotics Research are quality products to consider). This also applies for any that are heavy users of NSAIDs (Pain relievers, Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen, Naproxen, etc.) and Corticosteroids (steroids like Prednisone, Dexamethasone, etc.) as they can increase the chances of ulcers in the stomach from gastritis.
Getting your stomach acid back on track combined with any healing is your first step toward better gut health. Additionally, the clean foods you eat and the state in which you eat them will make a world of difference in the future to keeping away low stomach acid for good.
Wright M.D., Jonathan V. & Lenard, Ph D., Lane (2001). Why Stomach Acid is Good For You. Lanham, Maryland. M.Evans.