Digestion and Acidity
Debunking the Myth of Heartburn and Restoring Digestive Health
The statistics are staggering. Digestive disorders cost Americans over 100 billion dollars per year. 70 million of us seek medical advice for digestive problems every year. Digestive medications are among the most profitable in the world, raking in billions for the pharmaceutical companies. We are bombarded with commercials and ads for the latest digestive remedies – Tums, Rolaids, Zantac, Prilosec and Pepcid are just a few of the more familiar names.
The list of clinically defined digestive illnesses seems to grow every year along with the number of those stricken. We used to have heartburn. Now we have the more serious case of heartburn, a chronic condition known as GERD or Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease. We used to have indigestion and constipation. Now we have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Celiac Disease, Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis, the rates of which are escalating everywhere, including in our children.
Why do we have so many digestive issues in this country? And why are they escalating? In order to understand this let’s start with a simple analogy.
Imagine a river. Imagine a scientist on a boat in the middle of that river. He (or she!) looks down and notices the water is polluted. So he gathers up his scientist friends and comes up with clever ways to clean the water in the middle of the river. So they chlorinate it, fluorinate it, come up with a whole array of chemicals to kill the toxins, design high tech industrial equipment to purify it, maybe even radiate it. And while some of these things may help on some level, in time they notice that some of these methods start to create more problems which then require more high tech, costly solutions and so on and so forth. Slowly but surely the river gets sicker and sicker. Why? Because they never addressed the source of the pollution upstream. Such is what happens in digestion.
Digestion flows like a river. It begins upstream in the brain, mouth and stomach and ends downstream in the intestines. We have all sorts of drugs, medications and high tech procedures that treat digestive problems at the symptomatic level and this is not to say that some of these things are not useful or even important. But they rarely address the source of the problems upstream. This is where addressing the acidity in the stomach comes into play because when we do that we automatically help to correct problems downstream in the intestines. So let’s take a brief tour of the digestive process in order to better understand how and why things go wrong and how to correct them naturally via Nutritional Therapy.
Digestion starts in the brain and mouth. The thought, sight or smell of food triggers our gastric juices to begin flowing. Chewing begins the mechanical breakdown of our food. Saliva both moistens it for swallowing and also begins the chemical breakdown of our food via the action of salivary enzymes. Enzymes are chemical molecules that speed up chemical reactions in the body. Upon swallowing, our food flows through our esophagus, a long tube that connects our mouth to our stomach. Pretty simple so far, right?
OK, so now our food is in our stomach. Our stomach is our blender. By the time food leaves our stomach it should be the consistency of pea soup. This is accomplished primarily through the action of hydrochloric acid (HCl). HCl is secreted from millions of gastric glands in the lining of the stomach. Thus, nature designed our stomachs to be acidic. Let me repeat that because it is SO important to understand: Our stomachs are meant to be highly acidic.
This naturally designed acidity does 3 very important things. 1) It breaks down our food. 2) It sterilizes our food. HCl at the proper acidity kills pathogens such as bacteria, parasites and viruses. 3) The highly acidified food creates the proper conditions for the next phase of digestion to take place. When the acidified food moves from the stomach into the duodenum, the top part of the small intestine, this acidity signals the pancreas to release a very alkaline substance called sodium bicarbonate that raises that acidity to neutral. It is in this de-acidified environment that the next phase of digestion takes place. This next phase is the action of the pancreas and gallbladder.
Our pancreas and gallbladder are like extra pulses on the blender. You know that switch on some blenders where you can give a brief pulse for a little extra blending? That’s kind of like what our pancreas and gallbladder do. They add in additional digestive support so that by the time the stomach, pancreas and gallbladder have done their jobs, our food is thoroughly digested and ready to be absorbed in the small intestine. More specifically, our pancreas releases pancreatic enzymes to further break down our food and our gallbladder releases bile which emulsifies and further breaks down our fats. This relationship between the gallbladder, pancreas and stomach is absolutely vital for proper digestion. If just one of these three key elements is not working properly, digestion slows and becomes compromised.
The next phase of digestion is the absorption in the small intestine. Food that is properly broken down is readily absorbed through the lining of the small intestine and carried via the bloodstream for all the biochemical processes of the body. The excess is carried to the large intestine where some of the nutrients are recycled and the rest is of course expelled as our feces.
So the big question is what happens if the speed of the blender (the stomach) goes from high to medium high, or maybe to medium or even to low? The standard American lifestyle of stress, overuse of medications, smoking, excess alcohol consumption, overeating, nutrient deficiencies and of course a poor diet all contribute to a reduction in levels of stomach acid. And what happens if the acidity in the stomach becomes compromised? The answer: a lot.
First and foremost the food is not properly digested. The stomach is a warm, moist environment so without that blender speed on high (strong acidity) proteins start putrefying, fats rancidify and carbohydrates ferment. Now all that maldigesting food begins to give off various gasses and organic acids. Bloating, gas, belching and bad breath are some of the symptoms that result. This maldigesting mass of food builds up in the stomach and puts pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the valve that keeps the stomach separate from the esophagus.
As pressure builds, some of the acidic contents of the stomach can reflux back into the esophagus. Unlike the stomach, the lining of the esophagus is not meant for acid so it burns. This burning of the lining of the esophagus is known as heartburn. GERD or Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease is the chronic and thus more serious form of heartburn. Furthermore, all this undigested food assaults the intestines and causes a whole host of problems as we’ll see briefly.
Second, the lessened acidity creates an environment for various bacteria, viruses and parasites to take root. Remember, proper acidity will kill these pathogens.
And finally, compromised acidity will not properly signal the pancreas to release bicarbonate and therefore pancreatic enzymes and will also compromise the release of bile from the gallbladder. Basically, it’s akin to the blender speed being reduced. The implications of this are tremendous.
Now all this undigested food assaults the intestines. We experience bloating, gas, constipation and diarrhea. And when this happens on a regular basis, all sorts of chronic intestinal problems ensue. Now we have the development of all these –itis’. Conditions that end in –itis refer to issues of inflammation. So now we have ileitis, inflammation of the ileum (the section of the small intestine beyond the duodenum and the jejunum) and colitis, inflammation of the colon. Of course there’s ulcerative colitis and diverticulitis and chronic conditions such as IBS, constipation and Crohn’s disease.
Furthermore, the undigested foods can start to compromise the lining of the small intestine setting up a condition known as Increased Intestinal Permeability or Leaky Gut. 70% of our immune system resides in our gut. When undigested proteins start passing through that delicate lining of the small intestines, food allergies and sensitivities can develop. This sets the stage for a whole host of immune issues such as asthma, skin conditions, parasitic and viral infections and autoimmune conditions.
What so often unites all of these conditions is the improper breakdown of food. Tracing our steps back upstream we find that this improper breakdown of food is rooted in the acidity of the stomach. Correcting the acidity improves not only digestion in the stomach but facilitates the action of the flow of enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the gallbladder. When this improves, we automatically start addressing intestinal issues as a result. Again, the intestines lie downstream in our analogy. Improve the problems upstream and you automatically improve the conditions downstream.
So one of the most important therapies Nutritional Therapists use when it comes to correcting acidity in the stomach is to actually supplement with hydrochloric acid. If you have a deficiency in vitamin D, what do you do? Take vitamin D. Deficiency in minerals? Take minerals. Hydrochloric acid is no different.
This may sound counterintuitive because we’ve been so thoroughly conditioned to believe that things like heartburn and GERD are caused by too much acid in the stomach. Certainly if we experience a burning sensation it makes sense to think there is an excess of acid. And certainly Big Pharma loves to keep us thinking this way.
So let’s take a look at how acid reducing medications work and why they are not a good long term solution. Antacids and acid blockers decrease the acidity in the stomach. Low tech versions such as Tums and Rolaids alkalinize the stomach. More powerful versions such as Prilosec and Zantac literally shut down the stomach’s HCl producing cells. In doings so they relieve the burning sensation of heartburn and GERD. However, by altering the naturally acidic environment in the stomach they cause a whole host of other problems in the digestive process.
Remember, the stomach is supposed to be highly acidic. Taking antacids is akin to reducing the blender speed of the stomach which causes all the problems discussed above in the digestive process. So while antacids and acid blockers help relieve the symptoms of burning, they do not address the underlying cause which is actually TOO LITTLE acid in the stomach. Thus they perpetuate the vicious cycle of chronic digestive problems including of course the very conditions they are designed to treat, namely heartburn and GERD. The irony in this is unbelievable! See why acid reducing medications are so profitable?
Supplementing with HCl begins to correct that deficiency and thus reestablish the proper environment for proper digestive health. Furthermore, supplementing with HCl is safe, easy and cheap. Work with your Nutritional Therapist to properly dose the HCl. Everyone is different for how much they need. Some people are mildly deficient and some are extremely deficient. A qualified Nutritional Therapist will know how to help you find your individual dose.
Certainly, there is more to treating digestive disorders than just HCl, but as I hope this article illustrated, it is often an essential component. Other considerations include supporting the pancreas via digestive enzymes, supporting healthy bile flow through a number of natural supplements such as phosphatidylcholine, beet juice and/or bile salts and supporting intestinal health via probiotics and supplements that help soothe and heal the intestinal lining. And of course dietary considerations should always form the foundation of any nutritional therapy protocol. Removing allergens such as wheat and dairy and reducing and/or eliminating sugar are two of the most common and effective dietary approaches. Nutritional Therapy protocols usually combine many of these approaches along with HCl supplementation.
- Dr Jonathan Wright, Why Stomach Acid is Good for You
- Drs. Brenda Watson and Leonard Smith, Gut Solutions
- Elizabeth Lipsky, Digestive Wellness
- The Nutritional Therapy Association Training Program
About the Author:
Craig Fear became certified as an NTP in May of 2008. He specializes in digestive disorders, weight loss, chronic fatigue and detoxification. His private practice, Pioneer Valley Nutritional Therapy is located in Northampton, MA. Craig educates his clients about the importance of supporting local sources of agriculture and chose the Pioneer Valley of western MA specifically for its rich agricultural character and strong ties to small scale, sustainable farms. Craig is a volunteer with CISA, the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, a non profit organization dedicated to connecting its communities with local food and agriculture. His website is www.pvnutritionaltherapy.com. He is also available for phone consultations as well. You can contact him by email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 413-559-7770.
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