Cathy Wong, ND
Indigestion, bloating, constipation and gas
In the digestive system, a little steak can go a long way. But while many people reach for antacids to ease bloating and indigestion, low stomach acidity may be the true culprit.
An estimated 30% of North Americans have low acidity. Natural aging, a poor diet, chronic use of certain medications, and past infection with the Helicobacter pylori bacteria can impair the stomach's ability to produce acid.
Stomach acid, technically known as hydrochloric acid, is essential for proper functioning of the digestive system. It activates digestive enzymes that break down food into small particles for absorption. Low acidity may result in only partial digestion of foods, leading to gas, bloating, belching, diarrhea or constipation.
Normal levels of stomach acid help to keep the digestive system free of bacteria and parasites.
With low acidity and the presence of undigested food, bacteria are more likely to colonize the stomach or small intestine and interfere with the digestion and absorption of protein, fat and carbohydrates.
Many vitamins and minerals require proper stomach acid in order to be properly absorbed, including calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid.
Signs and Symptoms of Low Acidity
Bloating, belching, and flatulence immediately after meals
Indigestion, diarrhea, or constipation
Soreness, burning or dryness of the mouth
Multiple food allergies
Feeling nauseous after taking supplements
Weak, peeling and cracked fingernails
Redness or dilated blood vessels in the cheeks and nose
Hair loss in women
Undigested food in the stools
Chronic yeast infections
Low tolerance for dentures
Although these signs and symptoms are helpful in the assessment of low acidity, they can also be caused by other health conditions. Thorough investigation by an appropriately trained health practitioner is essential.
Conditions Associated with Low Acidity
Certain health conditions may cause or be the result of low acidity. These include Addison's disease, anemia, chronic autoimmune disorders, depression, asthma, eczema, gallstones, hepatitis, chronic hives, osteoporosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, rosacea, vitiligo, dermatitis herpetiformis, and thyroid disease.
Assessment and Treatment
Natural health practitioners can assess low acidity by using a test procedure that measures the pH in the stomach.
Treatment options include supplementing with betaine hydrochloride (HCL) and bitter-tasting botanical tinctures to stimulate stomach secretions. Betaine HCL is a supplement that contains hydrochloric acid. It should only be administered under the supervision of a health practitioner after a proper diagnosis has been made; improper use of betaine HCL may damage the stomach lining.
People with a history of ulcers, gastritis, stomach discomfort or pain, and heartburn must be closely supervised. People taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), cortisone-like drugs, or other medications that may cause a peptic ulcer should not take betaine HCL.
1. Kelly GS. Hydrochloric Acid: Physiological Functions and Clinical Implications. Alternative Medicine Review. 2;2;1997.
2. Lininger S, Gaby A, Austin S, Brown DJ, Wright JV, Duncan A. The Natural Pharmacy, 2nd Edition. Prima Health and Healthnotes, Inc., 1999.
3. Murray M. Dr. Murray's Total Body Tune-Up. New York, New York. Random House, Inc.; 2000.
Indigestion may be a symptom of a disorder in the stomach or the intestines, or it may be a disorder in itself. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, allergic symptoms, belching, a bloating feeling, a burning sensation after eating, chronic bowel irritation, chronic fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, gas, insomnia, joint and muscle pain, nausea, rumbling noises, skin disorders, sugar cravings, and vomiting. Heartburn often accompanies indigestion.
Swallowing air- by chewing with the mouth open, talking while chewing, or gulping down food- can cause indigestion. Certain foods and beverages can cause indigestion because they are irritating to the digestive tract. These include alcohol, caffeine, greasy, spicy, or refined foods, and vinegar. Other factors that can cause or contribute to indigestion include intestinal obstruction, lack of friendly bacteria, malabsorption, peptic ulcers, and disorders of the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas. Food allergies and intolerances (such as lactose intolerance) also can cause indigestion.
If food is not digested properly, it ferments in the stomach and upper intestines, producing hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and organic acids. These acids do not help digestion, but are factors in gas and bloating. Foods high in complex carbohydrates, such as grains and legumes, are the primary foods responsible for gas because they are difficult to digest, and therefore are more likely to yield undigested particles on which the intestinal bacteria act. Undigested food and bacteria present in the gut can produce toxins that can damage the mucosal lining, causing leaky gut syndrome. This condition occurs when particles of undigested food normally eliminated in the feces pass through tiny rips in the intestinal lining and get absorbed into the system, causing severe digestive distress. Contributing factors include abnormal intestinal flora (candida), food allergies, regular alcohol consumption, and parasites, chemicals or drugs that irritate the small intestines. Psychological factors such as anxiety, stress, worry, or disappointment can disturb the nervous mechanism that controls the contractions of the stomach and intestinal muscles.
STOMACH ACID SELF-TEST
Hydrochloric acid (HCl), which is produced by glands in the stomach, is necessary for the breakdown and digestion of many foods. Insufficient amounts of HCl can lead to indigestion. HCl levels often decline with age.
You can determine if you need more hydrochloric acid with this simple test. Take a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. If this makes your indegestion go away, then you need more stomach acid. If it makes your symptoms worse, then you have too much acid, and you should take car not to take any supplements that contain HCl.
|Proteolytic enzymes||as directed with each meal||To aid in the breakdown of protein for proper absorption. Important for combating gas and bloating.|
|Acidophilus||half hour before each meal||Necessary for normal digestion. Use a nondairy formula|
|Garlic||2 capsule 3 times daily, with meals||Aids in digestion and destroys unwanted bacteria in the bowel.|
|Omega-3 fatty acids||Maintains proper digestive function|
|Vitamin B complex||100 mg of each major B vitamin 3 times daily, with meals||Essential for normal digestion.|
|Vitamin B1||50 mg 3 times daily||Enhances production of hydrochloric acid (HCl)|
|Vitamin B6||150 mg twice daily||Digesting protein increases need for this vitamin, which is required for HCl production.|
|Vitamin B12||1,000 mcg twice daily||Important for proper digestion. Use sublingual or injection form.|
|Activated Charcoal||as directed on label||Absorbs intestinal gas.|
|HCl||as directed on label||Required for protein digestion|
|L-carnitine||Carries fat into the cells for breakdown into energy|
|Lecithin granules||1 tbsp 3 times daily, before meals||Fat emulsifier that aid in the breakdown of fats.|
|L-methionine||as directed on label, on empty stomach.||A potent liver detoxifier|
|Manganese||3-10 mg daily||Required for fat and carbohydrate metabolism|
|N-Acetylcysteine (NAC)||500-1,000 mg daily, on empty stomach with B6 and Vitamin C||Essential for repair of the large, and especially the small intestines. Also detoxifies harmful substances.|
|Selenium||100-300 mcg daily. If pregnant do nto exceed 40 mcg daily||Required for proper pancreatic function|
|Zinc||20-50 mg daily||Required for proper carbohydrate digestion and protein metabolism|
If you are prone to indigestion, consume well-balanced meals with plenty of fiber-rich foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Include in your diet fresh papaya (which contains papain) and fresh pineapple (which contains bromelain). These are good sources of beneficial digestive enzymes.
Add acidophilus to your diet. Acidophilus can be useful for indigestion because a shortage of the "friendly" bacteria is often the cause.
For disorders such as gas, bloating, and heartburn, try brown rice and/or barley broth. Use 5 parts water to 1 part grain, and boil the mixture, uncovered, for ten minutes. Then put the lid on and simmer for 55 minutes more. Strain and cool the liquid. Sip this throughout the day.
Limit your intake of lentils, peanuts, and soybeans. They contain and enzyme inhibitor.
Avoid bakery products, beans, caffeine, carbonated beverages, citrus juices, fried and fatty foods, pasta, peppers, potato chips and oter snack fods, red meat, refined carbohydrates (sugar), tomatoes, and salty or spicy foods.
DO NOT eat dairy products, junk foods, or processed foods. These cause excess mucus formation, which results in inadequate digestion of protein.
For upper gastrointestinal gas, take pancreatin; for lower gastrointestinal gas, take supplemental trace minerals. If you have gas, use the juice of one fresh lemon in a quart of lukewarm water as an enema to balance the body's pH. If gas is constant for days, use and L. bifidus enema. This should relieve the problem within hours.
For relief of occasional digestive difficulties, use charcoal tablets, available in health food stores. These are good for absorbing gas and toxins. Because they can interfere with the absorption of other medications and nutrients, they should be taken separately, and they should not be taken for long periods of time. Occasional use is not harmful and has no side effects.
If stools are foul smelling and are accompanied by a burning sensation in the anus, follow a fasting program. This is often a sign that the colon contains toxic material.
If you have had abdominal surgery (such as bowel shortening), take pancreatic to help digest foods. If you have hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), you also need pancreatin. After meals, if you have a stuffed feeling and a rumbling or gurgling with bloating and gas, use pancreatin.
If the results of the STOMACH ACID SELF TEST showed that you need more HCl, sip 1 tablespoon of pure apple cider vinegar in a glass of water with meals to aid digestion.
Chew your food thoroughly. Digestion starts in the mouth, and chewing signals the rest of the digestive system to prepare to break down the food for absorption.
Do not eat when you are upset or overtired.
Find out which foods your body has trouble digesting, and stay away from foods that cause a reaction.
If you are experiencing an excess of acid backup with heartburn symptoms, see your doctor to rule out gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or heartburn.
Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) have been clinically proven to promote the growth of friendly intestinal bacteria.
Drinking the juice of a lemon in a cup of water first thing in the morning is good for healing and for purifying the blood.
Exercise, such as a brisk walk or stretching, aids the digestive process.
Food combinations are important. Proteins and starches are a poor combination, as are vegetables and fruits. Milk should never be consumed with meals (milk should never be consumed to begin with).
Older people often lack sufficient HCl and pancreatin to digest foods properly.
Many people take antacids to relieve the discomfort of indigestion and heartburn, but these medications may actually make matters worse. Antacids neutralize the acid in the stomach, preventing proper digestion and interfering with the absorption of nutrients. This only leads to continued indigestion. Antacids are useless for gas and bloating.
Most antacids sold in the United States contain aluminum compounds, calcium carbonate, magnesium compounds, or sodium bicarbonate. Aluminum-based antacids can cause constipation. Calcium carbonate can cause a rebound effect in which the stomach produces MORE acid than before once the antacid's effects wear off. Magnesium compounds can cause diarrhea. Sodium bicarbonate can cause gas and bloating.
The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter reported that reversible impotence or breast enlargement may result from prolonged use of the heartburn medication cimetidine (Tagamet)