By naturopath Margaret Jasinska
Stomach acid can be a confusing topic. Stomach acid blocking drugs are some of the most widely used medications in the world. That’s not because there’s an epidemic of people with excess stomach acid. In fact, a large number of digestive problems are actually caused by insufficient stomach acid production.
During a meal, the cells of your stomach produce hydrochloric acid and the digestive enzyme called pepsin. Stomach acid and the enzyme pepsin are especially important for breaking down protein into its building blocks, called amino acids. It is also necessary for mineral absorption. Your stomach cells also produce something called intrinsic factor, which is critical for vitamin B12 absorption lower down in your small intestine. People with digestive problems or autoimmune disease are often low in vitamin B12.
When the acidic contents of your stomach make their way into the first part of your small intestine (called the duodenum), the acidity sends signals to your pancreas, for it to release digestive enzymes. Signals are also sent to your gallbladder, triggering it to release bile into your small intestine. The presence of fat in your small intestine also acts as a trigger for bile release.
If your stomach is not producing optimal levels of acid, this creates problems further down your digestive tract, as your pancreas and gallbladder will not function optimally. If you do not break down the protein you’ve eaten into its building blocks, you may absorb large protein molecules into your bloodstream. The large protein fragments are recognised by your immune system as foreign molecules, and you’re then at high risk of developing a food allergy or intolerance. Low stomach acid is very common in people with allergic conditions such as eczema, asthma, hay fever and sinusitis
An inability to digest protein properly due to low stomach acid can also lead to amino acid deficiencies. Amino acids are necessary for neurotransmitter (brain chemical) production. Impaired neurotransmitter production can lead to mood problems and sleep problems.
Another benefit of stomach acid is the antimicrobial effect. Stomach acid helps prevent the overgrowth of bacteria and fungus inside the stomach, and also further down in the small intestine. Producing adequate stomach acid also helps to protect you against food poisoning and gastroenteritis.