Did you know: you could have low stomach acid and not even realize it!?
Over time, this lowered level of stomach acid could actually be the root cause of your IBS!
That’s right, something as seemingly benign as stomach acid could be the hidden cause of your gut and IBS issues. Perhaps most alarming, you could have low levels of stomach acid right now. And you wouldn’t even know it!
This is especially true if you’re over the age of 60. The odds of you developing low stomach acid in your golden years is exceptionally high. More than 1 in 3 over the age of 60 will develop low stomach acid. (1)
If you’ve gone through menopause, the odds of you having lowered stomach acid levels increases. It is estimated that 40% of post-menopausal women have little to no stomach acid production. (2)
What does all this mean for you?
It means that the odds of you having low stomach acid is quite good. It’s also likely that your symptoms of low stomach acid are masquerading around as IBS or other gut issues. The simple act of increasing your stomach acid could alleviate a lot of your GI distress! Today, you’re going to learn how to do just that!
You’ve got low stomach acid – what’s the big deal?
I know, the term low stomach acid seems quite benign. Harmless, really.
But that acid in your gut is incredibly important. Just a slight lowering of the pH in your stomach can bring about a number of unwanted health concerns, nutrient imbalances, and even IBS-like symptoms.
Do you remember using hydrochloric acid in high school chemistry?
That’s the very same acid found in your stomach – hydrochloric acid or HCl as it’s commonly abbreviated.
HCl helps you to:
- Break down proteins
- Absorb nutrients
- Activate hormones and enzymes
- Protect you from bacterial and fungal overgrowth and infections
Without your stomach acid, you’d quickly develop a wide range of unwanted health conditions. Here’s an incomplete list of common conditions strongly associated with low stomach acid:
- Celiac disease
- Autoimmune disease
Healthy levels of stomach acid protect you from all those unwanted conditions. And more! This is how important it is to have healthy levels of stomach acid production.
Do you have healthy levels of stomach acid?
I hope I’ve convinced you that low stomach acid isn’t rare. In the case of IBS, lowered levels of stomach acid are even more prevalent.
But how do you know that your stomach acid is low?
I’m confident that someday in the future we’ll have a device that gives us an instant readout of our stomach acid levels. It would act just like the fuel gauge on your car. But for now, your symptoms are your early warning light that your stomach acid levels are low.
Some of the more common symptoms associated with low stomach acid include:
- Stomach/abdominal pain
- Acid reflux or heartburn
- Iron deficiency
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
Notice how a lot of those symptoms are the same cluster that you’d find in IBS. Low stomach acid could absolutely be the root cause of your IBS – especially after having low stomach acid for a long period of time.
Chronically low levels of stomach acid or, severely low stomach acid production (also known as achlorhydria) can even create physical changes to the bacteria in your digestive tract.
This may result in:
- An overgrowth of bad bacteria in the small intestine (known as SIBO). (3)
- Constipation or diarrhea.
- IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). (4)
Take your stomach acid seriously. If you have any of the above symptoms, it’s time to investigate further into your stomach acid levels.
I’ll show you how below!
How to really know if you have low stomach acid
You’re now familiar with the symptoms associated with low stomach acid, right?
Now, it’s time to take your investigation a step further. It’s time to use testing to see exactly what your stomach acid is up to! If you’ve been diagnosed with IBS, checking stomach acid levels should be one of the first things you or your practitioner investigate.
There are two ways to find out if you have low stomach acid:
1. The Heidelberg test:
The Heidelberg test is done at your medical doctor’s office. You cannot perform this test on your own.
The Heidelberg test involves swallowing a capsule containing a pH-sensitive radio-transmitting device. After the sensor is swallowed, gastric acid changes are evaluated before and after ingestion of a baking soda solution. (5)
You’ve probably never even heard of this test. And rightfully so – it’s expensive to run. So, it’s rarely used. I’ve yet to see a patient who has had this test run.
Since this test is likely not an option, you’re going to want to perform something known as a betaine challenge test. This is a DIY way of determining your stomach acid levels. While it’s not as precise as a Heidelberg test, it works surprisingly well. I use it in the clinic almost every week.
2. The betaine challenge test:
This test involves taking a betaine hydrochloride (HCl) supplement at mealtimes. You increase your dose until a noticeable discomfort is reported. Most people experience discomfort as heartburn.
Betaine HCl is a chemical that is used to increase stomach acid. It is by far the most popular and direct means to lower the pH in the stomach (remember, a lower pH is a more acidic environment). Studies have shown that taking betaine HCl can increase the production of stomach acid to normal levels for over an hour. (6)
How to perform a betaine challenge
Before I jump into the how-to part, a quick word of caution.
Those of you with the below conditions/situations should avoid performing the betaine challenge:
- Stomach ulcers
- Regular use of anti-inflammatory medications
- Corticosteroids (prednisone)
- Ibprofen (Mortin, Advil)
The above conditions can seriously increase your risk of damaging your stomach lining. If you have stomach ulcers or are taking anti-inflammatory medications, please avoid using betaine.
The betaine challenge
Take one capsule of betaine (350mg-750mg) with a meal that contains a healthy serving of protein. To perform this test properly, you need to ensure there is protein in your meal. A palm-sized serving of any animal protein will be sufficient.
Make note of any sensation or discomfort you experience.
If your stomach acid levels are low, you won’t experience any symptoms.
If you have healthy stomach acid levels, you may experience tingling, heartburn, diarrhea, neck aches, backaches, and even headaches.
If you experience any discomfort or burning sensation, you can get rid of your symptoms by taking 1 tsp of baking soda dissolved in water, milk, or juice.
If you do not notice any sensations or discomfort, wait 24 hours before repeating the experiment. When you perform the betaine challenge again, increase your dose by 1 pill. Continue to increase by 1 pill every 24 hours until you notice tingling, burning, or any other associated discomfort. Once you know the dose that causes discomfort in your body, your effect dose of betaine will be one pill less than the dose that caused discomfort.
** Please do not exceed 3000mg of betaine in a single dose **
Once you know your dose of betaine, take this during each meal that contains protein. If your meal is small, you’ll need a smaller dose of betaine. If your meal does not contain a protein source, you do not need to take betaine.
If low stomach acid is causing your IBS or any other GI-related symptom(s), you should notice an improvement right away. When this occurs, you’ll notice you need less and less betaine with each meal.
How to increase your stomach acid production without pills
Stomach acid production requires patients.
Before food even enters your body, the sight, smell or thought of food stimulates your stomach to produce acid. The hungrier you are, the more acid your stomach will produce.
Instead of wolfing down your food the moment it arrives, take a few moments to enjoy the smell and sight of it. Immerse senses other than your sense of taste into your meal.
When you’re cooking, allow yourself to savor the smells of what you’re cooking. These seemingly insignificant steps will help trigger your stomach to increase its acid production.
Even more natural ways to increase your stomach acid
Digestive bitters consist of bitter-tasting plants or plant extracts that are often distilled in an alcohol solution. Digestive bitters are common in many herbal medical traditions as a way to assist digestion. (7)
Bitters can include:
- Artichoke leaf
- Dandelion leaf
- Wild lettuce
These can be used individually or in a commercially prepared combination.
Please note that at the time of this writing, there is little information available on the specific dose or ideal preparations.
There are a number of compounds found in coffee that help to stimulate stomach acid production. (8)
The simple act of a morning cup of coffee could be all that you need to increase your stomach acid levels. Do keep in mind that using coffee as a means to increase stomach acid production has not been studied. But it’s certainly the most enjoyable way to increase your stomach acid levels. Just remember that coffee is not healthy for everyone!
Want to improve your IBS? Fix your stomach acid first
Before you go down the road of expensive tests and treatment for your IBS, check your stomach acid levels. A bottle of betaine costs about $20. That should allow you to perform a great many betaine challenges.
The simple act of increasing your stomach acid could lead to a significant improvement in your IBS symptoms. The root cause of many people’s IBS is gut infections like SIBO and/or bad bacteria/parasites. In order to stop the proliferation of these unwanted bugs, you need to have healthy levels of stomach acid.
Try it out tomorrow! What have you got to lose?!
Now, I want to hear from you!
What symptoms did low stomach acid cause in your body?
How stomach acid affect your IBS?
Leave your answers in the comments section below!
Also published on Medium.