Heartburn is a common condition many have experienced, and unfortunately occurs quite often for some. Whether your symptoms are minor or major (more details on symptoms in a moment) they are typically stemming from one root cause that is (ironically and detrimentally) the opposite of our commonly held conception that we have too much stomach acid.
In reality, heartburn and related symptoms are most commonly caused by too little stomach acid (Hydrochloric Acid, HCL for short), not too much.
HCL is a potent acid necessary for crucial functions like breaking down proteins into amino acids (a process called proteolysis), the assimilation of B vitamins, signaling the pancreas to release digestive enzymes, and killing off microscopic pathogens to prevent us from getting food poisoning. Our stomach environment is acidic, and should/needs to be that way in order to effectively carry out these tasks.
Unless we have a gastric ulcer, the stomach is equipped with a mucosal lining meant for containing stomach acid, and we should not “feel” this natural and desirable state of acidity. So the question remains, what is happening when we do?
How Does Digestion Work, Exactly?
From the moment food enters our mouth and we start chewing it (and remember, not thoroughly chewing our food can lead to serious problems in and of itself), our digestive process is signaled to begin. Once chewed food enters the stomach, HCL and other digestive enzymes are waiting to begin breaking everything down and denaturing proteins, producing an end product called chyme (a mixture of HCL and broken down food). Now, digestion can become problematic when our stomach environment lacks the necessary acid to break down this food. When this happens, the following symptoms may occur:
- Burning sensation (heart burn)
- Frequent gas and belching after meals
- Feeling that food is just “sitting” in our stomach/not being digested
- Constipation and/or diarrhea
- Undigested food in stool
- Frequent food poisoning, bacterial infections, parasites
- Candida overgrowth
- Constantly cracking fingernails
- Receding gums (periodontisis)
- Multiple food sensitivities (due to undigested proteins)
Again, we must understand why this phenomenon occurs. First and foremost, lets be clear that heartburn is not a Tums deficiency. All too often, people are prescribed or buy antacids to relieve their symptoms on a very regular basis, suppressing already low HCL levels. HCL is responsible for communicating the opening and closing of the lower esophageal sphincter (the valve allowing food to pass from our esophagus to our stomach) and also the opening/closing of the pyloric sphincter (valve allowing chyme to pass from the stomach to the small intestines).
When we do not have enough HCL to carry out these tasks, particularly controlling the lower esophageal sphincter, stomach acid is therefore able to pass into the esophagus, which is an alkaline (non-acidic) environment. We then feel that burning sensation, and try to calm it with antacids.
How do I know if I have low HCL, and what can I do about it?
- First of all, you can self-administer a simple and safe at home test with beet juice to get an idea if you are low in HCL. See below for more details.
- Use natural digestive aids like 1-2 tablespoons of raw apple cider vinegar in room temperature water OR 1-2 tbsp organic, fresh lemon juice in water 20 minutes before a meal. Another option is the use of digestive bitters, all of which have the effect of promoting stomach acid production.
- High carbohydrate diets (particularly refined carbs like white flour, sugar, processed breads, pastries, grains) can worsen symptoms. Stick primarily to a whole foods diet of quality protein, lots of vegetables and fruits (organic whenever possible), and moderate amounts of high quality saturated and unsaturated fats.
- Chew your food thoroughy, until it becomes a mush in your mouth.
- Relax while eating. When our nervous system is in its sympathetic nervous state (aka, fight or flight mode) we physically cannot digest foods. It is essential to be in a parasympathetic state, which does allow digestion to occur. Take 10 deep belly breaths before eating, and try your best to be sitting down, without any distractions.
- If the above doesn’t work after about one month, consult a nutritionist or integrative care practitioner about supplementing for a time with HCL tablets, but not if you have or suspect having an ulcer.
At Home Beet Juice Test
This test is not 100% accurate, but can definitely give you an idea of whether or not your HCL levels are low. For a few consecutive days, drink about 4 ounces of fresh, pure, beet juice alongside a bit of protein. You may be able to find this at your local juice bar, or steam beets on your own, chop, and place in a blender with water. Record what color your urine is over these days. If we have enough HCL, the red pigment (betalaine) of the beets should be neutralized and your urine will not appear pink or red.
In conclusion, it is of utmost importance to get to the root of your heartburn before simply beginning (or continuing) on acid blocking medications. If low stomach acid is the problem (which it often is), these remedies will set you up for more serious problems in the long term.