Low stomach acid is one of the most common digestive imbalances I see in my practice. To understand what this means and why it's important, you first need to understand how important stomach acid is.
Stomach acid protects you from pathogens and ensures you are digesting your food properly. Ideally the pH of your stomach should be very low, around 1.0, which is closer to battery acid than lemon juice. Luckily, your stomach lining has a protective layer of mucus that shelters it from these acidic gastric juices and prevents the stomach from digesting itself.
When everything is working as it should, stomach acid stays in the stomach where it belongs, helping your body digest protein and absorb nutrients like vitamin B12.
What Happens When the Stomach is Not Acidic Enough?
If you have low stomach acid, your body is not producing enough stomach acid to properly digest foods and keep the stomach’s pH low. This can result in burping, slow digestion, trouble breaking down high protein foods, seeing undigested food in your stool, and gastric acid splashing up into the esophagus. Since food is not digested well, low stomach acid can also cause nutrient deficiencies over time. Certain nutrients like vitamin B12 require adequate stomach acid to be absorbed.
While the stomach is designed to be an acidic environment, the esophagus is not. When stomach acid enters the esophagus, it can damage the tissue. Many people with acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD believe the issue is that they have too much stomach acid but this is usually not the case. Medically, the treatment for this is to further reduce the acidity to prevent more damage but this increases long-term risk of nutrient deficiencies and digestive issues. Holistically, we rebalance your stomach acid so it stays in the stomach where it belongs, addressing the root cause so you do not need to take medication for the rest of your life.
Common Signs You Have Low Stomach Acid
Here are some of the most common signs and symptoms of low stomach acid to look out for:
Heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD
Nutrient deficiencies like B12 and iron
Gas and bloating
Developing food sensitivities
Fatigue and energy issues
Seeing undigested food in your stool
Feeling like high protein meals are hard to digest
Cramping in the upper-left abdomen
If you have several of these issues, the next step is to explore some of the potential root causes for low stomach acid. While there are supplements you can take to lower the pH of your stomach, long-term you want your body to be doing this on its own.
Potential Root Causes of Low Stomach Acid
H. pylori Infection
H. pylori is a bacteria that can colonize in the stomach and cause damage to the parietal cells responsible for making stomach acid. The bacteria also secretes an enzyme that increases the pH of your stomach, so it is less acidic and more hospitable.
Low stomach acid can also be caused by a zinc deficiency. Stomach acid is required to absorb zinc from our food and we also need enough zinc in the body to produce stomach acid in the first place. This cycle can be broken by increasing zinc and replacing stomach acid for a short period of time to kickstart the body's ability to absorb zinc and use it to make its own stomach acid.
Stress is the number one killer and it's also a common cause of low stomach acid. If the brain perceives stress, the first thing it will do is shut down digestion. If you're about to be attacked by a bear, who cares about digesting and absorbing nutrients from that lasagna. Chronic stress will also have this effect, even if you never need to run away from anything.
How to Increase Stomach Acid Naturally
So, how do you fix your low stomach acid?
Ideally, start by working with a practitioner who can help you identify the root cause of why you have low stomach acid in the first place. All of the clients in my Gut Reset Program complete a GI-MAP and get a plan for how to feel better short-term and prevent problems from recurring long-term. You can get on the waitlist to join the next round here.
Here are a few ways to start supporting your stomach acid today:
Take digestive bitters, I share my favourite brands and how to use them in this free Beginner's Guide to Gut Healing.
Ensure you are eating enough protein and try to eat the protein on your plate first.
Get enough zinc in your diet from foods like red meat, oysters, and pumpkin seeds.
Take a small shot of raw apple cider vinegar before eating, about 1/2 a tablespoon diluted in 1 tablespoon of water.
Reduce stress and take 10 deep, slow breaths before eating to shift your nervous system into "rest and digest" mode.
Remember that if you have had low stomach acid for a long time, your body is most vulnerable to parasites, nutrient deficiencies, and dysbiosis (imbalances in good and bad bacteria). These issues can take more work to rebalance, but restoring robust stomach acid is the first priority to ensure the problem doe snot come back after you do all that work.