By naturopath Margaret Jasinska
When they think of stomach acid, most people consider it to be something bad; something that can cause heartburn and that should be reduced. This is not actually true. Good, high levels of stomach acid are critical for optimum health. If you suffer with an inflammatory condition, autoimmune disease or allergies, it is quite likely your stomach doesn’t produce enough acid. Increasing it should help to improve your health.
Firstly though, before we even get to the stomach, we must mention that digestion begins in your mouth. How well and how thoroughly you chew your food will have an enormous impact on how well you extract the nutrients from your meal, and whether or not you’ll be promoting the overgrowth of bad bugs in your intestines. If you end up with undigested food in your small intestine, you’re providing food for bacteria and yeast and leaving yourself wide open to developing an overgrowth or the wrong types of bacteria in your gut. This can be a direct cause of leaky gut syndrome and nutrient deficiencies.
Once you’ve swallowed your food, it makes its way into your stomach. 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 produce a type of molecule 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.
So you can see that if your stomach is not producing optimal levels of acid, it creates problems further down your digestive tract, as your pancreas and gallbladder will then 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. This is not supposed to happen, but it does in people with low stomach acid and digestive enzyme deficiencies. 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. If these allergies are allowed to persist for years, it raises the risk of autoimmune disease later in life.
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 depression, anxiety or insomnia.
Stomach acid is also a brilliant disinfectant; it helps to 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.