DIGESTION AND STOMACH ACIDITY – BURNING THE FUEL

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The cumulative topic in my posts has been the critical impact that digestion and detoxification have on our health, energy and immunity. The digestive tract has to work properly to keep the body clear of chronic inflammation. I have addressed liver and colon health maintenance and detoxification as starter points. Also, digestive enzymes and probiotics are key to maintain absorption of nutrients optimal, and to keep the digestive tract’s natural microflora in check.

The next step to explore is the stomach’s acid impact in digestion and detoxification.
Some of the most common complaints that I hear in the pharmacy are: my stomach is burning, my abdomen is bloated and full, I have a sour stomach, or have acid reflux.
About 70 million Americans are diagnosed with digestive disorders and about 30 percent with GERD which is gastroesophageal reflux disease. It is an estimate that 1 in 4 Americans experience heartburn at least once a month.
Most digestive disorders are a result of too much or too little acid produced in the stomach.
Let’s go back to the basics. What is the function of stomach acid?
Stomach acid is called hydrochloric acid, and it is mainly secreted by a stomach protein called gastrin. It has a very acidic pH range of 1 to 2.

Hydrochloric acid has many functions :

  • breaks down food’s protein bonds
  • converts pepsinogen into pepsin to further break down proteins
  • assists in breaking down fats and carbohydrates
  • activates enzymes to digest food in the stomach which only can work in acidic levels
  • triggers secretin to be released which releases enzymes from pancreas for digestion
  • forms chyme which is a thick liquid combination of broken down food with stomach acid which goes to the small intestine for absorption
  • absorbs minerals and vitamins such as calcium, iron, zinc, vitamins B12, B 6, niacin, folic acid and vitamin E which need an acidic stomach level for absorption
  • protects us from pathogenic bacteria found in food by destroying it before it leaves the stomach
It is easy to understand that the stomach has to have this level of acidity present to fully grind down protein, activate digestive enzymes, absorb essential minerals and vitamins, and protect us from harmful bacteria.

It is critical for protein to break down properly first in the stomach, because the nutrients we need from protein called amino acids, are the much needed structural  parts that make up most of our body’s tissues organs and immune system. Next to water, protein is the most abundant substance in our bodies.
Without protein parts the neurotransmitters we need for energy and emotional well being such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, etc are not regenerated properly. Poor digestion of proteins also leads to a weak immune system.
What causes overproduction of stomach acid?
A gastric ulcer can cause acid levels to rise because the ulcer increases gastrin production and this protein secretes hydrochloric acid.
H.pylori is a bacteria that can cause an ulcer because it can disrupt the lining of the stomach and impair the secretion of a gel like substance that protects the stomach lining from acid .
Other causes of ulcers include alcohol, cigarettes, and over use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)  such as  aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, etc which inhibit the making of the mucous gel protective lining in the stomach.
Common medications that can increase acid levels are: steroids, antibiotics, opiates, barbiturates and many others.
Foods like processed meats, spicy, fried, fatty foods , processed sugar, and acidic sauces with tomato for example can raise acid levels as well as drinks with caffeine, carbonated soft drinks and excess alcohol.
Stress and too little sleep causes cortisol levels to go up which increases gastrin production and in turn stomach acid rises. Long gaps between eating, eating large meals, and eating quickly can raise stomach acidity.
What is acid reflux?

Food travels from the mouth down the esophagus into the stomach. At the end of the esophagus there is a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter ( LES)  which opens to let food into the stomach and closes tight so that stomach acid does not back up into the esophagus. Too much acid production and other factors can irritate this valve and weaken its muscle.

What happens next is that the valve opens more frequently and does not shut tightly, so acid in the stomach gets  backed up to the esophagus. This is called acid reflux or heartburn. When it is chronic it is called GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease.
GERD is caused by overproduction of stomach acid because the acid erodes the muscle tissue in the LES valve and causes it to relax and weaken.
Several medications can relax LES and weaken its effect : blood pressure medications such as calcium channel blockers and beta blockers, antihistamines, anticholinergic medications, sedatives and antibiotics, opiates, theophylline, bisphosphonates (for osteoporosis), iron, and synthetic female hormones.

The way these medications can relax LES vary from relaxing the muscle itself, to increasing the time that food stays in the stomach. The longer that food is kept in the stomach, a condition called gastroparesis, the more acid that is produced.

Diabetics are prone to gastroparesis. Another medical condition that can weaken LES is a hiatial hernia which is when a small  part of the upper stomach sticks out through the diaphragm to the esophagus exposing it to stomach acidity.
A lack of digestive enzymes lacking in most of the processed food we eat can also cause a slowing down of digestion and increase the time that food remains in the stomach causing acid to back up in the esophagus.
Stomach acid is critical for proper digestion of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. However, factors that cause its over production create digestive diseases and a weakened immune system.
There are natural supplements to help reduce stomach acidity and irritation:
Licorice reduces stomach acid secretion and promotes secretion of the mucous gel to help protect the stomach lining from acid. It also reduces inflammation.
Chamomile soothes the gastic lining releasing tannins that help soothe and repair the gastric lining, as well as stimulating the release of digestive enzymes.
Peppermint helps to stimulate bile and digestive enzymes secretion, reduce inflammation and it helps to diminish gas. Licorice, chamomile, and peppermint are herbs and can be taken in tablets, liquid extract or as tea.
Marshmallow root and aloe vera have a soothing anti-inflammatory mucilage gel that helps to coat the stomach lining and soothe irritated tissue.
Digestive enzyme supplementation helps to reduce overproduction of acid especially for processed meats, fried and fatty foods.

Zinc suplementation  supports the structural lining of the stomach in protecting it from damage, and decreases acid secretion. A bond combination of zinc with l-carnosine (a peptide), helps to protect the stomach lining.

Some great supplement product combinations include:
– Acid Gone by Nurigenesis
– Heartburn Stop by Renew Life
– Acid Defense by Garden of Life
– Acid Soothe by Enzymedica

– Pepzin by Lonza Inc

Now let’s look at the flip side of the coin: stomach acid under-production  

As we get older, the stomach produces less hydrochloric acid. This condition is called hypochlorhydria. It is estimated that about 30 percent of the elderly have low acid production. The problem here is that when this happens it mimics the symptoms that cause reflux. When there is too little acid present to properly break down food, then it sits in the stomach for hours undigested.The stomach feels full and bloated. Eventually acid backs up into the esophagus from regurgitation of the stagnant food. This can also weaken the LES valve in the esophagus, and stomach acid contents flow back out .

For many, this turns into self medicating with antacids and it makes the condition worse because  the stomach acid production gets decreased even more.
Overuse of antacids is one of the most crippling conditions for overall health.
When the stomach acid is supressed food is not digested properly, bacteria from food is not eliminated in the stomach, essential vitamins and minerals are not able to be absorbed, the liver and small intestine have to work harder to get rid of bacteria and toxins. Immunity is compromised. Digestion is the most enrgy consuming function in the body. When it is not working well it is energetically debilitating.
There are natural ways to stimulate digestion such as supplementing with digestive enzymes and probiotics. Bitter herbs such as ginger, dandelion, turmeric, and orange peel also stimulate digestion. These herbs are available as liquid extracts, capsules or teas.
Adding 1 to 2 teaspoonfuls of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice to 1/3 cup of water before a meal can stimulate digestion by increasing acidity. Another way to increase acidity is with a betaine hcl supplement before eating. It is derived from beets and available in capsules.
Our stomach acid acts like the fuel injector in a car engine. The fuel injector breaks up fuel to make it burn easily and run the engine. The amount of fuel supplied to the engine is determined by it.

Camille Medina, RPh
Natural Pharmacy C.l.i.n.i.c.  llc

References
Digestive Path Well- Traveled Nov 2002, Susan Colebank
Natural Product Marketplace
Planet Botanica Canada
Geriatic Nutrition, Chernoff 2003 Pharmacology, Nutrition and the Older Adult: Interactions and Implications
Blumberg and Couris

The information provided here is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Suggestions and ideas presented in this document are for information only and should not be interpreted as medical advice, or for diagnosing illness. Seek advice from a health care professional before administering any dietary supplements.


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