It is estimated that 60 million Americans suffer with heartburn symptoms at least once a week. Is that the case for you?
What if I told you heartburn is not the existence of too much acid but the exact opposite?
Digestion in fact does not begin in the mouth. Digestion begins in the brain.
Look at it this way, has your mouth ever began to literally “water” over the anticipation of eating? Or if you perhaps have caught a sniff of something delicious? This piece of digestion is initiated in the brain and turned on by our autonomic nervous system, specifically for digesting our food we need our parasympathetic nervous system to be online.
According to Wikipedia “The parasympathetic nervous system is one of the three divisions of the autonomic nervous system, the others being the sympathetic nervous system and the enteric nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating the body's unconscious actions. The parasympathetic system is responsible for stimulation of "rest-and-digest".
Unfortunately, most of us run around in a sympathetic state or a “stressed out” state. Our sympathetic state is meant to protect us in case of danger, it is the fight or flight response. As you can imagine, if your brain is getting signals that it is in danger, proper assimilation of nutrients quickly falls to the bottom of the priority list. It is important to remember, stress in our body can be rooted from more than just a disconnect with eating. It can also be connected to systemic inflammation, disruption in our microbiome through opportunistic pathogens or fungi, exogenous toxins, or even emotional stress.
The stomach is responsible for the chemical and mechanical or “churning” of food. Once the food has been churned, broken down and properly acidified, the bolus (food and saliva mixture) then moves onto the duodenum. The body in its innate wisdom inhibits the bolus from moving to the duodenum until it has reached a specific acidity. Once it has reached the optimal acidity it is then called, chyme (meaning very acidic).
The first organ in the digestive tract is the stomach, the stomach is meant to be a place that works both mechanically and chemically in processing your meal. Ideally, your stomach would be about 1.5 pH, which is very acidic. Unfortunately, it is more common to have low stomach acid or hypochlorhydria.
Important roles of stomach acid:
It creates a sterile environment
The stomach via proper HCL (hydrochloric acid) is the very first line of defense against food or water borne pathogens that would love to take up residence in your GI tract.
It activates pepsinogen turning it to pepsin, the active form of an enzyme responsible for breaking down protein into amino acids.
Stimulates gastrin, a hormone released in the presence of food.
It properly breaks down food, streamlining all of the downstream processes.
This is one of the key parts to the dysfunction and the misunderstanding of “too much acid”. If the bolus isn’t acidic enough to move onto the duodenum, the bolus sits and continues to churn in the cavity of the stomach putting pressure on your lower esophageal sphincter also known as the LES. I am in no way suggesting that heart burn is a symptom of nothing. Any amount of stomach acid that makes its way into the esophagus will result in discomfort even is that acid is less than the optimal 1.5 pH,
it will burn.
At this point, most have been coached to reach for the antacid (acid neutralizing) medication to “quell the burn”. Unfortunately, this is a temporary band-aid that neutralizes the present acid needed for digestion. It also does not address the underlying cause of dysfunction.
Digestion itself should be a rather smooth and uneventful process.
Eat, chew, digest, eliminate.
No heart burn, no bloating, no gas, and certainly no constipation.
If you are dealing with any of the following symptoms, you may be one of the many who do not produce enough stomach acid:
Acid reflux, heartburn, or indigestion.
Burping or flatulence
Diarrhea, constipation, or both.
Mineral or hormonal imbalances
Fatigue (sore muscles included)
Undigested food in stool
Low functioning immune system
After the duodenum has done its part in signaling and engaging accessory organs like your pancreas, the broken-down molecules now move into the small intestine.
This is where 95% of your nutrients in your food are absorbed.
The fat globules have been emulsified into an absorbable fatty acid or glycerol molecules thanks to the bile held in the gallbladder.
The protein is broken down into amino acids and polypeptides by the enzymes and pancreatic juice. Once small enough those amino acids can pass through into the blood to be used as “building blocks” for nearly every function in the human body.
Carbohydrates begin to be broken down in the mouth, then furthermore in the small intestines. From there they will be shuttled through the blood stream for energy via glucose.
Of course, this a very simplified version of the dance of digestion. There are a lot of players and events being triggered by the last. However, it should again-be uneventful.
It carries on from the small intestine to the large intestine where the waste products can be recycled as needed for beneficial bacteria, lost nutrients are captured, and nutrients are converted to necessary vitamins K/B1/B2/B12 and butyric acid.
Lastly, we eliminate.
So, what happens when you are not producing enough hydrochloric acid?
If we view food as the material that feeds every cell in our bodies, its simple to see if we cannot break down and assimilate our food then we are no longer what we eat but we are what we digest. Many of us walk around in a micronutrient deficiency, driving anemias like iron, B12/folate, skin disorders like eczema, systemic inflammation, malabsorption, food allergies, and even autoimmune disorders.
Given that the brain and gut (neuroenteric system) have such a complementary relationship, you can see why it is so important to be in a relaxed stated when eating.
Here are some tangible ways to do just that…
Over consumption of our beloved caffeine, excessive carbohydrates, drinking alcohol, antibiotics, poor nutritional choices, and overuse of antacids (acid neutralizing medication) can all inhibit stomach acid production.
-Mindful deep breaths
The way I encourage clients to do this is through mindful breathing. Take anywhere from 5-10 deep belly breaths at a count of 4, then slowly release at a count of 4. Repeat minimum 5 times.
-Pray, meditate, or give thanks
An excellent time to practice the art of gratefulness through taking a moment to pray to whoever or whatever you chose to acknowledge for your provision of nourishing food.
-Turn the Tv off
No distracting noises or stressful information. If you are not enjoying a meal solo, I want to encourage you to recapture the art of fellowshipping with those around you. Bonding over a meal has been a long-time human tradition and place of connection.
-Turn your phone off or the very least on silent
No one needs to see your lunch, folks. In all seriousness, the social media update can wait. You owe it to your mind and body to take a break whenever possible.
-Chew and chew well
Try to chew your food a minimum of 10 times, I would say aim for higher. It is a joke in my house that I am the masticator police. Not my best nickname but, it could be worse. Basically, you are easing the job on your stomach, making a mind-body connection to eating, and allowing your body to get online with everything that is coming once you swallow.
-Lastly, work with a functional nutritionist to optimize digestion
I promise it not a shout-out but simple truth. There are times that the umbrella diets and approaches paired with all the techniques above are just not enough to remove the blocking factors. This is when it’s a good time to consider working with a trusted professional and work with specific testing.
The main take away- increasing stomach acid production will improve your overall health by optimizing digestive function.
Are you interested in more than a simplified version of the digestive cascade?
Come join me at my Basics of Nutrition series, the second Thursday of each month
(April-July) at 6:30 pm. Starting on April 11th at The Blue Barn Bakery in Conway, Arkansas.
An excellent book for the curious:
Iwai, W., Abe, Y., Iijima, K. et al. Gastric hypochlorhydria is associated with an exacerbation of dyspeptic symptoms in female patients. J Gastroenterol 48, 214–221 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00535-012-0634-8
Smolka, A.J., Backert, S. How Helicobacter pylori infection controls gastric acid secretion. J Gastroenterol 47, 609–618 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00535-012-0592-1
Britton, E., & McLaughlin, J. (2013). Ageing and the gut. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 72(1), 173-177. doi:10.1017/S00296651120028022