I challenge anyone and everyone to take acid!! Hydrochloric acid, that is- read on for more information than you ever thought existed about this amazing stomach acid.
I often find myself going through phases of using one particular form of treatment on many of the patients who come through the door. This is not because I consider my patients my own, personal guinea pigs. It is because I often rediscover a simple foundation of health that can get overlooked amid the swarm of new and exciting treatment options, and when I rediscover these things I recommit myself to educating patients – and myself- about them.
For the past year I have given out hundreds of capsules of Betaine HCl, or hydrochloric acid. HCl is the root of our digestive systems, produced even when we anticipate or smell food on its way, and is responsible for the ensuing production of many other digestive enzymes and activities. It is stomach acid, and it generally has the reputation of being something that causes burning or irritation, and must be stopped. Many of the antacid medications that we consume- Pepsid, Tums, Zantac, etc- are prescribed because of symptoms of burning and indigestion. Unfortunately the reality is that “heartburn” and “indigestion” symptoms can just as often be the cause of an UNDERPRODUCTION of stomach acid, and we are collectively experiencing an incredible reduction in nutrient absorption because of this false assumption.
It is also very common that someone with no symptoms whatsoever is underproducing stomach acid. Or that someone with very common digestive symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea is similarly affected. For any and all of these people- with the exception of someone with diagnosed ulcer disease- I challenge you to take acid!
What does HCl Do?
The purpose of stomach acid is to begin the process of breaking down nutrients for absorption. In particular, protein, iron, calcium and Vitamin B12 require the products of acid-producing cells to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Without it, you can eat as much of these items as you want and you will never experience their benefits in your body.
The contents of the stomach are always acidic, and it has a protective lining so that this vital organ is not damaged or eroded from excessive acid production. When food is anticipated, when chewing begins, when muscular contractions from swallowing begin to move food towards the stomach, it will begin to manufacture even more stomach acid.
The esophagus is a tunnel between your mouth and your stomach, and there is a sphincter- a muscular seal of sorts- between the bottom end of the esophagus and the beginning of the stomach. The purpose of this sphincter is to protect the lining of the esophagus from the acidic contents of the stomach once the process of breaking down food has begun. It opens with swallowing to allow food to enter, but if it is working properly it is generally closed once the stomach is full.
What is Heartburn?
The sphincter between the esophagus and stomach closes IN RESPONSE TO ENOUGH ACID IN THE STOMACH. Given what we learned above, if there is not enough acid produced we eat but food simply mixes with what little acid is always present in the stomach and as the stomach fills up, its contents reflux up into the esophagus. The esophagus and stomach do not have a protective lining like the stomach, so when acid makes contact we experience discomfort.
How do I find out if I make enough HCl?
There are only two ways to truly answer this question. One is a lab test that can be relatively expensive, and involves swallowing either a radiotransmitter or a capsule on the end of a string to test the actual contents of the stomach. The easier route is to take HCl in capsule form, and do an easy and harmless experiment to see how deficient you might be in stomach acid production.
I recommend one capsule of Thorne Research Betaine HCl at the beginning of a meal. Eat the meal, and observe. If this dosage is repeated for a few meals and nothing happens, increase to two capsules. Etc. Repeat until a sensation of burning is experienced, and then you know you have surpassed the needed amount by one capsule. The number of capsules tolerated indicated the level of insufficiency of acid production.
If you take one capsule and experience a burning sensation then congratulations you make enough acid!! (The only people who should not perform this experiment are those with active ulcer disease.)
I will happily give a free sample of HCl to anyone who wishes to try this experiment.
So why are so many people given acid-blocking medications?
This is literally a million-dollar question. Though I believe pharmaceutical medications truly have a time and place for use, this class of medications has been over-marketed and over-prescribed with detrimental effects. They are inexpensive and easy to take, and the reality is that anyone with acidic symptoms will get relief from these meds. Even UNDERproducers will experience less reflux by reducing acid production even further, but this will not address the root cause of their symptoms, and will in fact cause more problems.
As with everything else, it is easier to prescribe one pill per day than to take the time to understand what it truly happening in the digestive system. However, if you are currently on one of these medications you still require stomach acid to break down your food! For some of my patients who report that they cannot tolerate discontinuing their medications, I prescribe HCl with meals while we are working on a gut-healing protocol . Only once the esophagus is sufficiently healed do I EVER encourage patients to discontinue acid-blockers. Please consult your physician before attempting this or you will be very, very uncomfortable and angry with me.
Why don’t we make enough acid???
We rush. We are stressed. We are tired and we VERY occasionally make bad decisions.
Your digestive system is designed to work optimally in a relaxed state. So before you spend money on HCl capsules or acid-blockers, take the time to contemplate your meals. Appreciate where your food comes from. Sit down to eat- and not at your desk. At a real table, with real people. CHEW YOUR FOOD. Chewing is one of the first triggers for your very own acid production. And take some nice deep breaths between bites. All of these things will put your body in a parasympathetic or relaxed state. Above all, ENJOY what you eat. Whether it is ice cream or kale, I hope you are getting lots of pleasure from the choices you are making. And making lots of acid so your body gets the most out of what you put in your mouth.