Gastrointestinal dysfunctions are the most overlooked disorders in healthcare today. Pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, etc. are not normal! The important thing to note is that GI problems can lead to problems throughout the body and vice verse. It can affect the immune system, adrenals, thyroid, sex hormones, oxygenation status, cardiovascular system, liver, etc. Therefore, it is imperative to maintain GI health and integrity.
We are going to talk about one of the most common dysfunctions, low levels of hydrochloric acid (HCL). In order to break down proteins, HCL is required. If proteins are not effectively broken down, a few things can happen. First, we may not obtain sufficient amino acids (AA). This can lead to malnutrition which requires the body to breakdown tissue in the gut, muscles, skin, etc. in order to provide AAs for vital functions. Second, proteins may stay in the stomach longer where they ferment and putrefy. This increases hyperacidicity and may lead to ulcers, pain, gastric reflux, and the prescription of the “purple pill”. Taking an acid blocker tends to only perpetuate the problem. It may relieve the pain by lowering acid levels that irritate ulcers, but it adds to the root cause of the problem.
What else does HCL do?
HCL stimulates the release of bicarbonate which allows the valve to the small intestine to open to continue the processing of our food. If not, pressure is relieved through the esophagus which can lead to GERD symptoms such as pain and burning. At the same time, HCL stimulates the pancreas to secrete digestive enzymes and bile required to complete the process of digesting our food.
HCL helps to protect the body from ingested pathogens including viruses, parasites, yeasts, and bacteria as well as sterilizing our food. HCL is required for absorption of minerals, especially calcium and iron but also magnesium, zinc, copper. It aids in the absorption of B12 and helps to maintain the pH balance of the body. Over time, low HCL status could lead to inflammation, leaky gut, and even possibly autoimmune disease. Knowing its importance, the last thing we want to do is shut down its production!!
What causes low HCL status?
Causes of decreased HCL secretion may include infections such as h. or c. Pylori (which setup alkaline environment for survival), dehydration, hypothyroidism, GI inflammation due to food intolerances and/or infection, lack of protein in the diet, excess carbohydrate consumption, aging, birth control pills, adrenal stress, candida, chronic overeating, low estrogen levels, drug interactions, too much coffee consumption, and vitamin/mineral deficiency such as zinc, B vitamin or magnesium, poor vagal tone, etc..
How do you test for HCL levels?
The best and most cost effective way is an HCL challenge test in which acidity is slowly increased to determine how symptoms are affected. Some folks utilize a salivary pH test to provide a general indication of status. Urine indican and sediment levels may also provide information. The Heidleburg Capsule test requires swallowing a capsule to obtain pH info. In our office, we start with Functional Blood Chemistry and look for patterns of markers that trend toward HCL dysfunction as well as underlying cause.
What can you do to help the gut?
As with any gut issue, we use a “4R” protocol to help alleviate GI issues. This includes removing offending foods and/or infections, replacing whatever the body temporarily needs to help breakdown and digest food, repairing an inflamed gut, and reinoculating the GI system with friendly bacteria temporarily while adjusting our diet to create an more friendly environment for our gut bacteria.
We also utilize beneficial yeast to improve the efficacy of these bacteria while providing short chained fatty acids to feed them. We often recommend the use of digestive bitters to stimulate the release of digestive chemicals at the start of a meal. One can also support low HCL levels temporarily with Betaine HCL or acidifying foods such as apple cider vinegar with meals.