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Heartburn Medications: A Hazard to Your Health?

Our bodies are clever. Very clever. Since our bodies naturally produce hydrochloric acid (HCL), we can assume that they have a good reason for doing so. Yet the multi-billion dollar antacid industry has people believing that stomach acid is bad.

It’s worth mentioning that acid-blocking proton pump inhibitor’s (PPI’s) are the third most-prescribed class of drug in America (Nexium, Prilosec, Omeprazole, Prevacid). For most people suffering with heartburn, acid reflux, Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) etc., the issue is not so much that they are producing too much acid, but rather that the acid they are producing is escaping out of the stomach and into the oesophagus. In fact, more often the problem is lack of stomach acid. Surely therefore, addressing the root causes of the problem makes more sense than shutting down acid production with the concomitant adverse side effects?

Why is stomach acid important?

Inadequate HCL can cause a cascade of problems and, as a result, can undermine virtually every process of metabolism, from tissue regeneration, to immune function, to neurotransmitter balance, and much more. Inadequate HCL contributes to the root cause of many health problems.

HCL has several very important functions:

  • It sterilises what we eat and kills acid sensitive bacteria, viruses, mould, yeast, fungi and parasites. Alarmingly, the incidence of Helicobacter Pylori (H. pylori) is on the increase. H. pylori suppresses stomach acid secretion. However, and for those taking acid suppressing drugs, researchers believe that the initial infection with H. pylori can only take place when the acidity level in the stomach is decreased (even if only temporarily). This gives rise to a vicious cycle you would be smart to avoid, i.e. low stomach acid leads to heartburn, which in turn leads to acid-suppressing drugs, which lead to H. pylori infection, which leads to further reduction of stomach acid and which leads to GERD/ heartburn/acid reflux.

  • HCL helps digest (break down) proteins so that the protein can be assimilated more easily by the intestines.

  • It triggers the pyloric sphincter (the valve between the stomach and the small intestine) to open and the oesophageal sphincter (the valve between the stomach and the oesophagus) to stay closed. This allows the pre-digested contents of the stomach to move into the small intestine for further processing and prevents reflux back into the oesophagus.

  • It is a crucial ingredient for enabling your body to absorb vitamin B12. The older you get, the more your digestive system breaks down. This means the lining of your stomach gradually loses its ability to produce HCL which releases vitamin B12 from your food. Vitamin B12 deficiency is implicated in numerous health conditions including dementia. Click here to learn more about the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, closely linked to low stomach acid production.

  • It stimulates the pancreas to release enzymes needed for digestion. Without this acid trigger, digestion becomes severely hampered.

  • If you have low stomach acid – i.e. your stomach pH is too high, you create an environment for bacteria to take hold, grow and reproduce. The PPI’s taken for heartburn are known to cause all sorts of dysbiosis.

Low stomach acid is the result of chronic stress, bad diets, overuse of antibiotics and toxicity.

The huge emphasis on decreasing stomach acidity has caused countless people worldwide to be plagued by digestive issues. Rather than too much stomach acid being the issue, as many as 99% of people with these sorts of digestive disorders have too little – a condition known as hypochlorhydria. In fact, most Functional Medicine practitioners will tell you they seldom see people with too much stomach acid, particularly amongst those over 50.

How do you know if you have low stomach acid?

  • Your salivary pH level tends to be low. The pH of the body has an inverse relationship to the pH of the stomach. If you have an acidic salivary pH, it tends to equate with low stomach acid. You can test using pH paper from a local chemist. Your salivary pH should be a slightly alkali 7.4.

  • You feel uncomfortable when you eat high protein meals. Stomach acid HCL helps break down and digest protein. Undigested protein goes through a process called putrefaction. This occurs when food you eat fails to digest. It therefore moves more slowly through the digestive tract and can undergo a process like fermentation.

  • You routinely have heartburn or indigestion. Some people do not even have to eat protein to get stomach symptoms. They get it from anything they eat.

  • You are not drinking enough water. The 'hydro' in hydrochloric acid means ‘water’ and without sufficient levels of water your stomach acid will be too weak. Many people can cure their hypochlorhydria simply by hydrating themselves properly with water or green tea. Beware however of the common mistake of drinking water with your meal as this tends to dilute your stomach acid. Rather drink water throughout the day.

  • You get gas in the form of bloating, belching or flatulence after a meal. Stomach acid keeps bad bacteria at bay. Without sufficient levels of stomach acid, the bad bacteria can grow, out-numbering the good bacteria. One of the functions of good bacteria is to help break down food particles. These symptoms are also seen with food sensitivities such as with gluten and dairy. However, in many cases the food sensitivities are associated with low stomach acid.

  • You suffer with myofascial syndromes, muscle spasms/cramps, osteoporosis and other mineral-deficient syndromes. Minerals can only be absorbed in a highly acidic environment.

How does low stomach acid lead to heartburn, acid reflux or GERD?

Low stomach acid is the result of chronic stress, bad diets, overuse of antibiotics and toxicity (as well as use of over the counter antacids and PPI’s). Decreased stomach acid and increased transit time (as with constipation: people with constipation tend to have weak stomach acid) lead to the overgrowth of bad bacteria (dysbiosis). With dysbiosis we tend to see an overgrowth of yeasts, moulds, parasites and bacteria, the most common of which today being H. pylori. One of the major signs of dysbiosis is gas. Excessive gas causes a major increase in the pressure inside the stomach (bloating). This pressure, together with the failure of the valve between the stomach and small intestine to open as and when it should (it will not open unless it has enough acid to ‘trip’ the trigger), will tend to push the putrefying food mass (a mass that is extremely acidic even if stomach acid levels are low) back up past the valve and into the oesophagus. The oesophagus is not protected by the same lining as the stomach and therefore highly susceptible to burning.

Why are Doctors prescribing acid-blocker drugs like PPI’s?

These drugs work by suppressing acid production and relieving symptoms. However as much as suppressing acid production may treat and relieve symptoms, it does nothing to treat the cause. If anything, over time these drugs are going to make the condition worse by perpetuating the problem. In addition, research indicates that PPI’s should not be used for periods longer than 6 weeks at a time and not more than once yearly. However, most people are staying on PPI’s for much longer. Many people develop a dependency on these drugs, made worse by the fact that they are difficult to stop taking. Never stop taking PPI’s ‘cold turkey’ as you will get a severe rebound of the symptoms. Rather wean yourself off gradually with the guidance of a healthcare practitioner.

Common signs of hypochlorhydria

  • Bloating, burping, and gas immediately after meals and/or staying full long after the meal is over.

  • Diarrhea or constipation or other symptoms of IBS.

  • Indigestion and / or heartburn.

  • Undigested food in stools.

  • Feeling hungry despite eating.

  • Candida (yeast overgrowths), parasites, dysbiosis, rectal itching.

  • Food sensitivities such as gluten allergies and asthma.

  • Iron deficiency, various types of anemia – particularly vitamin B-12, mineral deficiencies in general and osteoporosis.

  • Chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue, fibromyalgia, lethargy, apathy, depression

10 Natural Ways to Increase Stomach Acid and Prevent Hypochlorhydria

Before you reach for the pills, try these all-natural tips to boost your stomach acid and prevent hypochlorhydria:

  1. Try not to eat when you are stressed. We typically have two parts of the nervous system – the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) and the parasympathetic (‘rest and digest’). When stressed we produce a rush of adrenaline and cortisol. Blood is moved away from the digestive organs, resulting in less stomach acid and digestive enzyme production.

  2. Eat a low carbohydrate diet.

  3. If you have IBD or IBS, it is better not to eat your carbs and proteins together.

  4. Chew your food completely as this stimulates the production of stomach acid. It also eases the digestive process when digestion has started in the mouth.

  5. Drink a mixture of raw apple cider vinegar and lemon juice. Start the day with a cup of warm water, add the juice of a lemon and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. If the apple cider vinegar makes you feel nauseous, start with a couple of teaspoons and increase gradually. The apple cider needs to be raw and unpasteurised so choose a brand like Braggs vinegar. This mixture, despite being acidic, alkalises the body while acidifying the stomach.

  6. Eliminate gluten. There is a lot of research on the link between gluten and hypochlorhydria. Look out for my programme later this year on following a grain-free diet.

  7. Give your body the raw materials it needs to make HCL i.e. drink water and use high quality sea salt (not typical processed salt). Himalayan salt provides you with the chloride to produce HCL. It also gives you over 80 trace minerals the body needs to perform optimally biochemically.

  8. Discuss the possibility of taking betaine HCL supplements with a healthcare provider.

  9. Eat fermented foods to improve bowel flora in order to eliminate H. pylori.

  10. Exercise.

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