Dinner was great, but I was uncomfortable. About 15 minutes after my last bite, the all-too-familiar feeling of a big bloating belly started to set in. I dreaded what was next: within the hour I’d have major gas cramps and I’d probably have to lie down for a while to rest until the pain peaked and started to wane while the gas “released”. Yeah, essentially I’d need to lie down and fart for an hour before I could move on with my day.
Pleasant? Not at all. Embarrassing? Completely. And very life-interrupting.
What on earth was going on? Why was something as simple as dinner throwing me into such turmoil?
It turns out I had a very common but widely misunderstood condition called “hypochlorhydria,” which is low stomach acid production. Hypo = low; chlorhyde = hydrochloric acid (or HCl for short).
You see, the stomach needs to be very acidic – with an optimal pH of 1.5-3 – in order to activate pepsin, among other enzymes, to break down protein. If our stomachs aren’t sufficiently acidic, we don’t digest protein properly, we don’t access many of the minerals in our food, and we don’t properly trigger vitally important digestive functions further down the process. The secretion of HCl is an absolutely essential part of the digestive puzzle. Furthermore, this highly acidic environment is our body’s first line of defense against food-borne pathogens. It’s no accident that I used to be the first to succumb to any kind of food poisoning.
But wait a second, you might be thinking. What about all the heartburn and acid reflux that is absolutely rampant these days? Don’t we all suffer from too much acidity in our stomachs, not too little?
As hard as it is to believe with the heavy promotion of antacids and acid-blockers, most people with heartburn are actually hypo-chlorhydric, not hyper-chlorhydric (too much acidity). In fact, most people who are prescribed antacids by their doctors aren’t actually tested for stomach acidity levels. And when tested (which is hard, uncomfortable, and unpleasant to do) it’s actually quite rare that the levels come back high.
What’s really important to know is that if you have ANY kind of digestive dysfunction you are likely also hypochlorhydric and you won’t get anywhere with your gut healing unless you address this issue. It’s at the root of many digestive issues from parasites, to food sensitivities, to SIBO, IBS, colitis, and more.
So the question is, do you have hypochlorhydria? Here are 13 signs that you may not be producing enough stomach acidity:
1. You’ve lost the taste for meat.
I see this all the time in my practice. Clients tell me they just don’t have the taste for meat like they used to. They usually assume that this is their body guiding them to a vegetarian diet. When we get into our work, 9 times out of 10 we find that they are deeply hypochlorhydric, and with a little HCl support, they regain their appetite for and ability to digest animal protein.
2. You have a history (current or past) of a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Vegetarians don’t eat a lot of animal protein; vegans eat none. The body slows down production of HCl accordingly. This is one of the core reasons that a vegetarian diet (especially a vegan diet) can be very hard on the digestion: without that all-important stomach acid, they’re not able to access the minerals from their food, properly trigger the production of pancreatic enzymes, or properly trigger the secretion of bile from the gallbladder. A whole host of trickle-down problems ensue. Remember: stomach acid has many roles above and beyond the digestion of protein, and with low stomach acidity, all of these functions will be compromised. Interestingly, it’s the secretion of HCl that triggers the release of intrinsic factor, which is essential to the absorption of vitamin B12 (yet another reason it’s so hard for vegetarians and vegans to get sufficient B12).
I was a vegetarian on and off for the better part of 12 years, so I know firsthand how hard it is to introduce meat back into the diet. Without supplementing your stomach acidity, your body is going to struggle. The good news is that with a little priming, your body can produce its own HCl again.
3. You experience belching or gas about an hour after a meal.
Know anyone who immediately starts to let out some big belches after they’ve eaten? That’s often the result of hypochlorhydria. One of stomach acid’s important roles is to trigger the opening of the pyloric valve, the little valve that connects the stomach to the duodenum (the top of the small intestine). That little valve is very smart, and it knows not to open until the contents of the stomach are at the proper state of digestion. This includes a sufficiently acidic stomach environment.
If the pyloric valve is waiting and waiting for a level of stomach acidity that isn’t achievable due to low acid production, the contents of the stomach start to ferment. Fermentation, as we all know, creates gas, and gas needs to be released somehow. Whether it goes up or down depends on your constitution, but it will be released one way or the other.
4. You experience bloating or cramps within an hour after a meal.
As with #3, fermentation creates gas, and gas creates pressure. Pressure creates bloating and often significant discomfort. Your clothes don’t fit that well either. (I used to dress strategically to hide this.)
5. You get heartburn or acid reflux.
Contrary to popular opinion, acid reflux isn’t too much stomach acid. Most of the time, it’s actually too little stomach acid that leads to acid in the wrong place. Let me explain:
Your esophagus has a pH of about 7, which is very neutral. As I explained above, your stomach needs to be a pH of 1.5-3, very acidic, for optimal digestion. Now, your stomach prepares for such an acidic environment by secreting mucous to protect its lining so that you don’t literally digest yourself.
The esophagus has no such protective coating. If you’re not secreting enough acid, the pyloric valve doesn’t open, and the contents of your stomach start to ferment, this creates gas, which creates pressure. The gas has to be released one way or the other. If it goes up and leads to belching, that means the esophageal valve – the valve that connects the esophagus to the stomach – has opened and allowed that gas to travel up. Sometimes, along with the gas, some stomach juices splurge up into the esophagus. Ouch!!! The delicate lining of the esophagus is not equipped to handle such acidity.
This is why antacids work on symptoms but they actually exacerbate the root cause of the problem. Sure, an antacid will soothe that burning, but at the same time, it’s lowering your stomach acid production, which was the root issue to begin with. You can see how this can spiral quickly downhill…
6. You have really bad breath even though you brush your teeth.
Ruling out poor dental hygiene, it makes perfect sense that halitosis (bad breath) would be the result of digestive dysfunction. If you’re not digesting the food in your stomach properly, it’s going to create toxic byproducts, which can quickly overload our body’s detoxification abilities. Let’s face it: we live in a very toxic world and our detoxification functions are massively overworked. Our livers have enough to do without having to handle the by-products of a malfunctioning digestive system. If you have really bad breath even with excellent oral hygiene, hypochlorhydria is probably the root of the problem.
7. Your sweat is stinky.
Sweat can be stinky for lots of reasons – it could be a sign of magnesium deficiency or often it’s a sign your liver and kidney (primary detoxification organs) need a little love. But, just like with bad breath, the more toxic the body, the more toxic the sweat. The question is: where are those toxins coming from?
The improperly digested protein resulting from hypochlorhydria is a breeding ground for bacteria and yeast to proliferate, and bacteria and yeast produce toxins. This is a condition we call bowel toxemia. It’s a case of endogenous toxicity or “toxicity from within”.
8. You’re not hungry for breakfast.
I see this pattern all the time in clients. They eat a really large dinner, usually late in the evening, and then they’re not hungry for breakfast. Hypochlorhydria is often at the root, leaving the food to sit in the stomach for a long time. They’re not hungry because it’s quite likely they’ve still got dinner in their belly when they wake up!
9. You’re hungry all the time, even when you feel full.
I know this one well. I was famous among my friends for eating massive amounts of food and being quite literally “full”, but still hungry. I can remember one particularly notable example of this from years ago. I was out to dinner at an Italian restaurant and ordered a huge dinner. It was rich and creamy and definitely “filling.” And yet, I finished it and was still hungry. Like, I’m-not-going-to-make-it-home-without-stopping-for-pizza hungry. And so, I ordered the dinner again. My friends and the waiter looked at me in disbelief. To their horror and amusement, I ate the entire thing a second time. How I never had a weight issue is beyond me.
All to say, I know what it is to be insatiable. If the body isn’t digesting protein or accessing minerals, it makes sense that you’d be hungry all the time – you’re not getting the nutrients you need from your meals, so your body is driving you to eat more. When I supported my body’s ability to produce stomach acid, my appetite dropped by at least half. It was shocking how little food I needed to feel full.
10. You get sleepy after meals.
Being sleepy after meals can mean a number of things: blood sugar dysregulation, improper macronutrient balance, or inadequate digestion, which leaves too much food in the digestive tract. It takes a lot of energy to digest, and more energy resources will be diverted there if your digestion is functioning less than optimally.
I have seen it time and again in my practice where clients who are sleepy after meals support their stomach acid levels and suddenly find they feel fabulous afterward.
11. You have undigested food in your stools.
Low stomach acidity affects the digestion of everything you eat – not just proteins. You see, in addition to supporting the breakdown of protein, HCl triggers the release of pancreatic enzymes that essentially finish the breakdown of your dinner once it gets into the small intestine. If you don’t secrete enough pancreatic enzymes, you won’t finish breaking down your food and will see undigested food in your stool.
12. Your fingernails chip, peel, or break easily.
If you’re fingernails chip, peel, or break easily, it’s a clear sign of deficiencies in protein, minerals, and often also essential fatty acids. By now you’re well aware that deficiencies in protein and minerals are often due, at least in part, to low stomach acid production.
13. You have anemia that doesn’t respond to iron supplementation.
Here’s a very specific example of a mineral deficiency that is exacerbated by low stomach acid. If you’ve been diagnosed as anemic, given an iron supplement, and there was no change, there’s a good chance hypochlorhydria is the root of the problem. Sufficient HCl is a co-factor for iron absorption. This is an example of why it’s critical to have optimal digestion even to access the nutrients in your supplements.
Now you have a sense of whether you have hypochlorhydria or not. If you do, what next?
For some people, a few minor tweaks are all that’s needed to boost HCl levels naturally. For others, more targeted support is required. You can supplement with HCl, but I strongly recommend doing so only under the supervision of a health practitioner as it is a fine balance figuring out your specific dosage and there are some contra-indications.
Here are some starting points that you can easily do at home:
1. Drink a small glass of room temperature water with 1 Tbsp raw apple cider vinegar before meals. This stimulates the digestive process and encourages your stomach to secrete stomach acid.
2. Take some Swedish Bitters before meals, just like your great-grandma did. This works along the same lines as the apple cider vinegar – the bitter taste stimulates the digestive process.
3. Eat sitting down, slowly, in a relaxed state. It cannot be over-emphasized how important your physical and mental state is when you eat. Digestion is a parasympathetic process, meaning that it only happens when you’re in a relaxed state. If you’re under stress, your digestion is compromised. Sit down for your meals, take 10 deep belly breaths before you start eating to switch you into a relaxed state, and eat at a leisurely pace, chewing and savoring each mouthful. Digestion actually begins in our brains, and this allows our brains to initiate many important processes, including the release of HCl in the stomach.
4. Give yourself some time to digest – don’t rush right into the next activity. It’s no accident that most cultures (North America being a notable exception) structure their days such that they have some downtime after a meal. It’s important to give your body some time to get the digestive process underway. You don’t need a whole afternoon of siesta, but what about taking a nice 15-minute walk after lunch rather than diving right back into work?
5. Eat your last meal of the day at least 3 hours before you need to go to bed for the night. This gives your body a little time to digest before lying down. If you do suffer from heartburn, you’ll find that this strategy can help you reduce symptoms that are exacerbated when lying down.
If this topic intrigues you or if you think I’m crazy to suggest that we suffer from low rather than high levels of stomach acidity, then I highly recommend Dr. Jonathan V. Wright’s excellent book Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You.
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