The stomach is the first organ to welcome the bolus of delicious and nutritious, yet alien and microbe-laden food and beverages into the body. Instead of a friendly welcome party, the stomach harbours a corrosive and reactive environment in which numerous vital mechanisms are constantly at play in sustaining and maintaining good health.
One of the key players in this is hydrochloric acid (HCl). Its roles include keeping the pH of the stomach at the optimal 1-2, facilitating protein digestion, converting pepsinogen to pepsin, neutralising harmful pathogens to avoid bacterial or fungal infection and overgrowth of the small intestine, encouraging the flow of bile and pancreatic enzymes, and facilitating the absorption of a variety of nutrients, including folic acid, ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, non-heme iron, and some forms of calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
HCl production commonly decreases with age, yet other factors such as like low protein intake, zinc deficiency and H. pylori infections are also known culprits. Worst of all, medications targeted to reduce HCl are highly over-prescribed and result in a plethora of side effects and diseases down the track. A reason for the over-prescription is that over- and underproduction of HCl result in similar symptoms, leading to false diagnosis and treatment.
Suboptimal HCl levels, hypochlorhydria, are associated with signs and symptoms such as:
|· Indigestion· Bloating, distension of abdomen after eating
· Burping and reflux
· Bad breathe
· Leaky gut
· Food allergies
· Diarrhoea and/or constipation
· Hair loss in women
|· Post-adolescent acne· Anaemia
· Nausea after eating
· Dryness, burning soreness of the mouth
· Abnormal intestinal flora
· Chronic intestinal parasites
· Dilated capillaries on nose and checks
· Inflammation and swelling of the tongue
· Undigested food in the stool
· Weak, flakey, cracking nails and hair
Clinical conditions associated to hypochlorhydria include:
A little test can be performed at home to give an indication of whether or not one has enough HCl. First thing in the morning on empty stomach, drink ¼ teaspoon of aluminium free sodium bicarbonate mixed in half a glass of water. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Observe if any burping occurs. Burping between 0-3 minutes indicates a good level of acid; burping between 3-5 minutes low stomach acid; no burping at all indicates very low acid.
Luckily, nature provides an array of medicinal plants, foods and nutrients that have been clinically observed to optimise HCl activity and thus reduce the risks of symptoms and ailments listed above.
As a rule of thumb, bitter tasting foods and drinks increase HCl by the activation of the vagus nerve, which runs from the head, down to the abdomen and an increasing body of science is unravelling its critical role in health.
Foods to enjoy to increase HCl:
- Dandelion leaves
Gentiana lutea, commonly known as gentian, is a very bitter digestive tonic that stimulates not only HCl secretion, but also salivary and gallbladder secretions to improve absorption of nutrients. Gentian root can be taken as a tincture with some water 15 minutes before meals for optimum results.
Tincture 1:2: 10-15 drops diluted in little water, three times daily before meals
Tea: 2g per cup, three times daily before meals
Andrographis paniculata is also known as the King of Bitters and is truly face-distorting! The aerial parts contain active compounds that reduce inflammation, lower fever, support and protect liver function, increase bile flow and stimulate the production of natural killer cells, which are crucial in combatting pathogenic invasions. Thus, andrographis is one of the main herbs for treating H. Pylori. However, the tincture is best in a mix with other herbs like licorice root and cinnamon to disguise the unbearable bitter flavour.
Angelica archangelica, also known as angelica, contains active compounds that increase HCl, heal gastrointestinal ulcers and reduce intestinal inflammation. Angelica is a wonderful herb that works at low doses with great effect and can be taken like gentian, 15 minutes before meals.
Tincture: 1:2, 1ml diluted in little water, three times daily before meals
Tea: 2g per cup, three times daily before meals
A digestive tea may also be helpful and can taste good too! For a 1 litre pot of tea,:
- 1tsp caraway seeds
- 1tsp fennel seeds (crush the seeds in a mortar and pestle or blender to release compounds)
- 1tbs chamomile flowers
- 1tbs grated ginger
- 1tsp shredded licorice root
Let it steep with a lid for 10 minutes.
If these remedies have not taken enough action to treat the hypochlorhydria, a capsule of betaine HCl and pepsin can be administered shortly before meals. Apart from aiding digestion and reducing symptoms of hypochlorhydria, it will naturally enhance absorption of zinc, which is a co-factor in HCl production. Zinc deficiency is a common cause of hypochlorhydria and creates a vicious cycle, which is best broken by using betaine HCl and zinc along side herbal remedies. Not any zinc will do though; zinc piccolinate or amino acid glycinate are the most bioavailable and absorbable forms.
Braun, L. and Cohen, M. Herbs &Natural Supplements, an evidence-based guide. Elsevier Australia, 2005
Kelly, G.S. Hydrochloric Acid: Physiological Functions and Clinical Implications. Alternative Medicine Review, 1997. Volume 2, Number 2, Page 116
Thomsen, M. and Gennat, H. Phytotherapy Desk Reference 4th edition. Global Natural Medicine, 2009