Low stomach acidity, its causes, symptoms and cures

Low stomach acidity is common and can happen at any age. In older people, as bodily functions decline, it is very common. It is present in about half of all people over 60.

The medical term is hypochlorohydria. This means ‘low hydrochloric acid’ (HCL). HCL is needed for protein digestion, to help tear apart protein into its constituents, the amino acids. It is also needed

to help get minerals out of food.

When a person is hypochlorohydric, their ability to get amino acids and minerals is compromised.

Low amino acid intake from food forces the body to consume its own reserves of protein, from muscle tissue, to get amino acids. Because of this back-up process, long term hypochlorohydria can cause muscle mass loss and thinness.

Insufficient mineral intake from food forces the body to consume its own reserves of minerals, which is mainly in bone. Because of this back-up process, long term hypochlorohydria can cause bone mass loss leading to osteopenia or osteoporosis.

Symptoms of hypochlorohydria:

– sensation of food sitting in the stomach and not digesting;

– bloating, gas, heaviness, fullness, all worse with eating;

– trouble digesting protein rich foods (does better with very small portions);

– diarrhoea or constipation;

– reflux, burning behind the sternum, food mush coming up the throat. Often uses antacids. Endoscopy shows damage to the bottom of the oesophagus;

– hiatal hernia;

– muscle aches, pains;

– duodenal ulcers (not gastric ulcers, which are caused by excess acidity). With hypochlorohydria the insufficiently acidified food mush passes into the small intestine. Mixed with normally alkaline secretions from the pancreas, the result is too much alkalinity. The small intestine suffers alkaline burns. This is how duodenal ulcers can come from hypochlorohydria.

– Symptoms associated with mineral deficiency are many, the commonest being nervousness, insomnia, chronic anaemia, paper thin nails.

There are ways to test the stomach for acidity. A string (string test) or a capsule on a thread (Heidelberg test) are swallowed and let into the stomach, then pulled back up and examined for a stomach acidity readout. An electronic capsule, swallowed, transmits information on stomach acidity before it passes out in the stool.

Antacids are commonly prescribed for symptoms of hypochlorohydria, mainly reflux. But 90% of reflux comes from hypochlorohydria, and only 10% comes from too much stomach acidity. Long term use of antacids for someone with hypochlorohydria puts them at risk of amino acid and mineral deficiency. For these people antacids may be best used as short term for relief. The long term use of antacids require distinguishing between low and high stomach acidity.

Hypochlorohydria has many causes: ageing, for example, or stress and worry, which can diminish stomach function. Radical dietary change, like from meat to vegan, or vegan to meat, can also act as a trigger, as can refined foods, excess sugar, or excess caffeine and alcohol.

Addressing the appropriate causes can help.

HCL tablets can be used. There are two ways to use them – one good, the other bad. The bad way is when HCL tablets are used permanently. This replaces stomach acid production, allowing a weak stomach to get lazy and to stop functioning properly. The good way is to use the HCL tablets to challenge and stimulate the stomach back to normal function. This is done by giving HCL tablets short term, then slowly cutting down on the dosage. This gives the stomach time to kick in acid production, often to normal levels.

Herb bitters are useful for stimulating and normalising stomach function.

Acupuncture has specific points for stimulating stomach function, and Chinese medical diagnosis is valuable for looking at the overall pattern to better understand the problem and to guide treatment.

From a dietary point of view, reduce processed foods, eat small portions of meat (to make for easier digestion), and

use salad dressings that include vinegar to help stimulate stomach function. So try eating a small steak with a large salad.

Cold and raw foods tend to reduce stomach function, especially in the winter. Cooked foods that are warm or hot

aid the stomach, especially in the winter. Pungent or warming spices, like cayenne, ginger, roasted garlic and rosemary stimulate stomach function.

Eating standing up or hastily is inhibiting. Eating sitting down, relaxed, and in good company, are stimulating.

The stomach is a creature of habit, loves regularity, and dislikes irregularity in meals.

  •  Nicolas Kats ND, Lic Ac, is a US Naturopathic Doctor and licenced acupuncturist. He practices at Dooneen Clinic, Clifden, and at Health & Herbs, Galway. 086-3651590 (text only), drnkats@eircom.net