Further to my post a few days ago regarding low iron levels, one of the factors that I often find in my low iron patients is a digestive disorder where the levels of stomach acid are too low for good mineral absorption.
Many minerals need a certain level of pH in the stomach for them to be converted into a form that renders them available for absorption in the small intestine. In a situation where there is less than optimal Hydrochloric Acid levels in the stomach, minerals such as iron may not be available for absorption, no matter how much it we actually eat.
Hydrochloric Acid production lowers for any number of reasons, although I find the biggest reason by far is stress. When we are under pressure or stress, our body moves into fight or flight mode. Now our body is pretty clever and if it perceives a danger in the environment that we have to deal with, then it uses it’s energy wisely. It sums up the situation and thinks “Hmmm. I need to run away from this Saber Tooth Tiger (Boss, Bills, Relationships, Kids etc) that is chasing me and that is going to take X amount of energy – so therefore all that energy that I’m using to digest my lunch can be diverted for my fight or flight response. And once the danger is passed, I’ll relax and digest my meal then”. Very clever, but if we’re in fight and flight mode all day every day, when do we ever stop to digest our food properly?
The long term dangers of this are obvious. Malnutrition of specific micronutrients like minerals, and also macro-nutrients such as protein. I have found a very strong link between disorders such as Oesteoporosis and long term low stomach acid. Another factor that emerges in a low acid environment is the disturbance of the rest of the digestive tract. Hydrochloric Acid is the first line of defense against pathogens in our food, and if we have low levels, then bacteria, viruses, microbes, yeast, fungi and parasites can enter our small and large bowel, where they can cause havoc. If we had nice high levels of acid, then these pathogens would be neutralised before they had a chance to invade our bowel. Our food would also be well digested which would create a healthy environment where pathogens could not take hold.
There are a couple of tests that I will often use to evaluate this area in more detail. One is a Hair Mineral Analysis test that gives us an overview of the mineral status of the body from a sample of hair. When I find four or more minerals that are very low, it will often be an absorption problem.
The other test that I often do is called a Complete Digestive Stool Analysis and this test evaluates the whole status of the gut from the stomach down. In this we can not only pick up whether there are satisfactory HCl levels or not, but also whether the pancreas and liver are working properly and if there are any pathogens disturbing the bowel and affecting the overall function. I do a lot of work with these tests and will be posting more about them in the future.
There are a couple of simple ways to increase HCl levels. Addressing stress is a big one, but even just being aware of taking your time to relax over a meal can help; using a bitter before meals to stimulate digestive juices, such as apple cider vinegar, bitter herbs, lemon or bitter salad greens; being well hydrated helps; having optimal zinc and chloride levels also assists. If all of these fail and you are having symptoms of low acid such as bloating, burping, gas, reflux and heartburn (yes, heartburn is mainly LOW acid not HIGH – antacids make the problem worse over the long term), then you may need supplemental HCl (it’s called Betaine Hydrochloride) to assist your body in breaking down your food better so that you can get the most out of it.
Even if you are on the perfect diet, you can still be nutrient and mineral deficient if your digestive system isn’t keeping up. Taking higher doses of supplements isn’t the answer – but correcting the digestion system just might be.