One of the more entertaining commercials to me these days are some of the heartburn commercials. Not that I am poking fun at people with heartburn as I personally know that it is dreadful to deal with. But what I find amusing is just how product marketing hits us. The specific set of commercials I am referring to are the ones with people getting slapped around by their food. It is ironic to get slapped around by the food you had hours earlier mainly because most of us know just what we are eating and what is causing us grief! Yet we continue to eat it! I raise my hand, hell I raise both of my hands and claim I did this too to the point where I had a twelve round fight with it! Yes, I consumed and consumed and consumed the same things over and over that ultimately would have me in its vice for hours later. You have some choices to think about. Either you follow the crowd and buy into the many advertisements and take the antacids or acid blockers or you change some things up. Before you opt for the quick fix, there are some things you should be aware of first.
What is heartburn?
Heartburn is very common in our culture which really contributes to the success of these marketing campaigns. Acid suppressing drugs are a seven billion dollar a year industry! If these companies are making this much revenue from these drugs than there is something definitely wrong in this country. Indeed there is, as 44% of the population experiences heartburn regularly. That’s 60 million people impacted monthly and 25 million people daily. Heartburn is a condition where stomach acid makes its way up into the esophagus via the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES) in turn giving that burning feeling as the acid inflames the sensitive tissue. Over time, the chronic heartburn may erode the tissue to the point where a more serious condition forms. This is called GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease and is characterized as damage to the esophageal lining that may or may not produce symptoms, mild to severe inflammation of the lining of the esophagus or symptoms such as a heartburn or other related digestive issues. The annoyance of mild heartburn or the more serious GERD condition is the trigger behind the theory of “too much stomach acid”.
Suppress! Suppress! Suppress!
The common approach to this dilemma is to suppress and suppress and suppress stomach acid as we produce too much stomach acid as most conventional doctors would tell you. In fact this is entirely wrong as approximately 90% of Americans produce too little stomach acid or otherwise named Hydrochloric Acid (HCL). This is the key point of this post in that if we don’t have enough HCL, a whole host of problems presents itself. Unfortunately the message you get most of the time is that acid suppressant drugs are safe to use regularly. I can personally attest to this as I myself took Prilosec for ten years and never once did I question it. Well, I knew in my heart that taking something for so long had to have some kind of detrimental impact, but I didn’t challenge it. Probably for a few reasons. Number one is I knew I would have to change somethings in order to deal with this naturally. I may actually have to stop eating tomato sauce or chocolate. We avoid change like the plague don’t we? Probably the other main reason and most likely the more dominant, was that I trusted my doctor. He or she had loads of medical education, experience and wisdom right? So how could they steer me wrong? That fourteen day warning on the box was just there to fill space? I really do wish I would have had someone guide me to Jonathan Wright’s fabulous book on “Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You” many years ago. It would have proved most useful to me I think? In any event it is what it is now. I take HCL supplementation now and probably will be for some time into the future. I suspect that many Americans should be doing the same, but until this word gets out more, we will continue to take these nasty digestive disrupting drugs. So just what happens if we don’t have enough stomach acid?
Well that’s a great question! In order to fully understand this it helps to understand the makeup of the digestive system. The upper and lower digestive tract is like a Marine unit that works in wonderful harmony. Every one depends on one another to succeed and the unit is only as strong as its weakest link. When stomach acid is low or outside of that pH of 1.5-3, the entire process south of this fails! For starters, the stomach is a "short term" container that is supposed to churn and burn the material contained within and then off it goes to the Small Intestine. But in cases of low stomach acid(hypochlorhydria), the content sits and sits as a result proteins putrefy, carbohydrates ferment and fats go rancid. This creates pressure and this is forced up into the esophagus. The concoction is still acidic enough to burn the esophagus, but not acidic enough to prompt the opening of the pyloric sphincter that opens up into the Duodenum of the Small Intestine. Eventually the pressure will force the chyme to enter into the SI, but we are now talking about undigested food. From there its one problem after another; leaky gut, allergies, food sensitivities, inflammation, diarrhea, fat absorption issues, imbalance of good and bad flora and so on. This is really at the absolute heart of the majority of our issues. Name any condition in the body and it somehow has a source from improper digestion.
You may be asking why is stomach acid low in the first place? Another great question! I ask another important question here; what are two of the most common things that impact us in this country? Over use of anti-biotics and stress! These happen to be two of the best examples of why we are low in HCL. Let’s start with stress as it’s my own personal favorite pastime. Much better at it these days, but this I know was my worst enemy years ago and started my own personal war with heartburn. The digestive system is very particular. It requires that we be in a calm or parasympathetic state in order to digest food properly. If we are in the opposite and more common state of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, then we are simply not going to digest our food properly. When is the last time you rushed through your meal to get on a conference bridge? Or when is the last time you ate in your car on the way to work? I know, I know its all about time! Believe me I get it, but I also know much more now about how these habits impact the digestive system so I choose to be good to myself and give myself the best opportunity for success. So what about our other nemesis the anti-biotic? In one word, inflammation. Anti-biotics contribute to intestinal inflammation and any inflammation in the body causes stress. There it is again, stress and we know after reading the first part that stress causes an inability to produce HCL. The third thing that is common in this country is a poor diet. Things like sugar, preservatives, and processed foods and so on will also cause stress. You see a theme here? Stress comes in so many forms internal, external, food sensitivities, physical, psychological and environmental to name a few. There are other contributing factors like NSAIDs such as Tylenol, aspirin and Aleve that will contribute to the wearing down of the stomach lining over time which reduces the ability to produce HCL. Lastly as we age, we reduce the ability to produce as much stomach acid. In fact as we age our bodies stop doing a number of things as well as they did when we were younger. This is an interesting point if you think about the logic of stomach acid in this country. If we really did produce too much stomach acid, we should see our youth needing an influx of acid suppressors, not our seniors.
HCL eats pathogens!
I want to round this out a bit with discussing just why stomach acid is so important. Outside of the digestive function that requires proper pH, HCL has some very critical functions. Have you ever been on the unfortunate end of food poisoning while others around you didn’t seem to get impacted at all? Well if you did, then you may have been low on stomach acid and others that were not impacted may have been in good range. I say this because one of the main benefits of HCL is that it bathes the stomach in the acid, basically inoculating our environment and serving as our first line of defense against pathogens. All of your nasty microbes are actually proteins and HCL digests these proteins. So essentially they become food and not food borne illness.
I am going to save the remediation process for another post, but just know that it can be done. Also know that I am not suggesting that you don’t take these components. Each person has to make the decision for themselves. I simply wanted to present some facts in this post and hopefully you can take this information and apply it to your own situation. It will take some planning and effort to understand your own personal challenges with stomach acid, but the remediation process will largely be the same for most. It just may be a bit more time consuming for some people and this really depends on your own personal make up as well as how long you were taking these drugs. In closing, as I have said before in other posts you really have to be your own detective on these things. Ask why until you cannot ask why anymore. In my practice I encourage my clients to ask questions and make sure that they understand the why’s behind anything we do. This way you don’t have your own personal power stripped from you. Thanks for reading and please post any questions or comments you may have!
Ian Sandage is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who speaks from the personal experience of someone with autoimmune disease and the highs and lows of a health journey