Your stomach produces secretions made from hydrochloric acid, mucus, and several enzymes. Low stomach acid or hypochlorhydria is characterized by a deficiency in hydrochloric acid. This acid is necessary to help your body break down food and absorb nutrients. It also helps to kill bacteria and viruses that may enter the stomach through your food.
Food digestion becomes disrupted when levels of stomach acid are low, and if left untreated, this condition can cause serious gastrointestinal damage.
The symptoms you experience with low stomach acid levels are related to disrupted digestion, poor nutrient absorption, and increased susceptibility to infection. The symptoms can include any combination of the following:
♦ Bloating and gas
♦ Upset stomach and nausea
♦ Heartburn and burping
♦ Desire to eat when not hungry
♦ Hair loss
♦ Undigested food in the stool
♦ Neurological issues such as numbness, tingling, and vision changes
Some of the most common causes for a low level of hydrochloric acid include:
♦ Age: This condition is much more common in adults over the age of 65.
♦ Stress: Chronic stress impacts your digestive tract and decreases stomach acid production
♦ Medications: Certain antacids or medications for ulcers and acid reflux can cause hypochlorhydria when taken for long periods of time.
♦ H. pylori: This bacterium commonly causes stomach ulcers, and can also contribute to reducing levels of stomach acid.
♦ Vitamin deficiency: Vitamin B or zinc deficiencies can lead to reduced stomach acid levels. These are both typically caused by poor dietary intake or nutrient loss as a result of chronic stress, smoking, or excessive alcohol consumption.
♦ Surgery: Surgeries such as gastric bypass surgery can reduce your overall stomach acid production.
There are several chronic health conditions that have been linked to hypochlorhydria and may be the underlying cause of your problems. The most commonly associated conditions include:
♦ Psoriasis: This may be an inflammatory skin condition, but the inflammation impacts your entire body. It is not uncommon for those with psoriasis to also have digestive disorders. Low levels of stomach acid can increase inflammation in the body, which may exacerbate your psoriasis symptoms.
♦ Gastritis: This is a common symptom associated with low stomach acid levels. With reduced stomach acid, your stomach is unable to fully digest food, which leads to indigestion that can cause inflammation and gastritis.
♦ Chronic autoimmune disorders: Autoimmune disorders are characterized by chronic and widespread inflammation. This inflammation can not only impact digestion, but it can be affected by it as well. Low stomach acid levels trigger increased inflammation, which can worsen and exaggerate autoimmune conditions and their symptoms.
♦ Osteoporosis: It is common for osteoporosis and gastrointestinal disorders to occur together. The role that inflammation plays in these conditions is what links them. Low levels of stomach acid cause poor digestion and absorption of nutrients, which increases your risk for diseases like osteoporosis.
♦ Pernicious anemia: This is a condition marked by decreased numbers of red blood cells. As a result, your body is unable to absorb vitamin B-12 efficiently. The condition also causes weakened stomach lining as well as lower levels of stomach acid and contributes to autoimmune diseases.
When you notice any combination of the symptoms described, you should reach out to your doctor so they can test your stomach acid levels. Your doctor will start with a history of your health and a physical exam and then will conduct a pH test or acidity test of your stomach.
A low stomach acid test will produce a pH reading between 3 and 5. Any reading above 5 indicates you have almost no stomach acid, which is a condition known as achlorhydria.
The treatment your doctor advised will depend on the severity of your symptoms as well as the cause of the low stomach acid levels. One approach is based on dietary changes and adding supplements.
A hydrochloric acid supplement can increase stomach acid production. If H. pylori are the culprit, then antibiotics will be prescribed to eradicate the bacteria from your gut.
Any underlying medical cause can be addressed based on the symptoms, and your doctor will help you to better manage the condition by reducing symptoms.
There are also things you can try at home to help increase stomach acid levels naturally.
♦ Raw apple cider vinegar: This is made from crushed apples, bacteria, and yeast. It is rich in protein and enzymes that help you to break down food and the bacteria in food. Raw apple cider vinegar can increase stomach acid levels thanks to its acidic properties, and it can also help to reduce acid reflux symptoms.
♦ Fermented vegetables: Eating more fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles can improve stomach acid levels. These foods contain probiotics, which improve digestion, fight harmful bacteria, and reduce the inflammation associated with hypochlorhydria.
♦ Eat ginger: Ginger contains compounds widely known for their anti-inflammatory properties, and eating this regularly can reduce the inflammation associated with low stomach acid levels.
♦ Reduce stress: Reducing chronic stress can restore digestive health and function by reducing inflammation. The best ways to effectively reduce stress include getting regular exercise, practicing yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises.
♦ Chew your food: The simplest way to improve stomach acid levels is to make sure you chew your food thoroughly. Saliva production increases while you chose, which stimulates digestive enzymes in the digestive tract. This will reduce symptoms associated with low acid levels, and it will help maintain a better pH within your stomach.
Digestive enzymes are one of the top natural ways to treat low stomach acid. The presence of digestive enzymes increases acidity in the stomach, so digestion can occur efficiently.
The production of enzymes decreases with age, so these need to be replaced to prevent low stomach acid. There are several important digestive enzymes to include:
♦ Alpha-amylase: digestion of carbohydrates
♦ Peptidase: digestion of proteins
♦ Lipase: digestion of fats
♦ Cellulase: digestion of plant starches into glucose for energy
Low stomach acid levels are known to cause constipation as the breakdown of food is disrupted. A natural way to treat constipation is with bromelain. Bromelain can also reduce inflammation that can cause low stomach acid.
Low stomach acid can also cause an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the digestive system. Supplementing probiotics such as S.boulardii can help to maintain balance to prevent low stomach acid from increasing the risk of infection by harmful bacteria.
The liver can also be implicated when stomach acid is low, so protecting liver function with vitamin E extract is essential. Vitamin E extract has been shown to improve liver function where damage has already occurred.
Hypochlorhydria or low stomach acid can be very serious, and if untreated can cause serious gastrointestinal problems. Reach out to your doctor right away if you notice any symptoms of low stomach acid or if there are any changes in your digestion. Once your doctor can determine whether or not you have hypochlorhydria, you will get help with managing symptoms as well as the underlying cause.
The long-term outlook is promising with a prompt diagnosis because many causes of low stomach acid are treatable, and seeing a doctor will help to prevent serious complications.