Stomach acid plays an integral part in digestion. Without it, we literally can’t break down our food or absorb nutrients properly.
Low stomach acid can occur for a number of reasons and present with a variety of symptoms. If you struggle with persistent digestive symptoms, read on to learn whether low stomach acid might be a concern for you and what tips to follow about to increase stomach acid naturally.
As a dietitian who specializes in gut health, I want to help you understand the role of stomach acid and how to increase stomach acid naturally.
Below, you’ll find my top strategies, tools, advice and tips to increase stomach acid naturally.
Why adequate stomach acid is important
The role of stomach acid is to help break down our food, aid in digestion and absorption of nutrients and to eliminate pathogens such as bacteria and viruses from the body. Knowing this, it is easy to understand how having low stomach acid would negatively impact us.
Our stomach acid’s low pH and highly acidic properties are due to hydrochloric acid (HCl) (1). This acid is produced in response to food intake, and activates enzymes that break down foods, facilitating their absorption. It also protects us by killing off disease causing microorganisms which may have been ingested with food (2).
How can I tell if I have low stomach acid?
Low stomach acid can have a number of uncomfortable signs and symptoms related to indigestion, nutrient malabsorption and compromised immunity. If you notice a few of them being an issue for you, you may want to consider low stomach acid as a possibility.
Low stomach acid symptoms and signs
- Food in stool
- Acid reflux
- Hair loss
- GI infections
- Protein deficiency
- Iron deficiency anemia
Causes of low stomach acid
There are multiple factors that can contribute to decreased stomach acid.
For starters, age can play a role. As we get older our bodies stop producing as much HCl, which is the main component of stomach acid (3).
Another factor that may be causing low stomach acid is lack of proper vitamins. This can be due to poor diet, health complications, stress levels, smoking or alcohol intake. The B vitamins, iron and zinc are specifically important for proper stomach acid production.
Those who have undergone bariatric surgery often suffer from altered stomach acid production as well.
Medications such as antacids/NSAIDS are another culprit that can cause low stomach acid. If you are on meds for heartburn or stomach ulcers or taking ibuprofen or aspirin, this is definitely something to watch out for.
Natural ways and tips to boost stomach acid
If you suspect that low stomach acid is the root issue for you, there are some simple things you can do to boost your body’s own production. As a dietitian with a holistic approach, the following are my go-to ways and tips to boost and increase your stomach acid naturally!
Wean off antacids/NSAIDS, and other medications that reduce stomach acid
As I mentioned earlier, certain medications are known to cause gastric issues. Oftentimes we are stuck in “routine” of taking over the counter (OTC) drugs such as antacids/NSAIDS or aspirin for aches and pains, headaches, etc. At a point, it can be causing more harm than good.
If you find yourself taking one of these OTC drugs often, it may be time to wean yourself off of them. Start by slowly increasing the times between doses, over a few week period. Taking a fish oil supplement has been shown to be equivalent to OTC pain relievers in reducing pain.
Digestive bitters are a category of foods and herbs that contain bitter compounds that stimulate the digestive system by increasing the production of stomach acid and saliva (6). Examples of digestive bitters include:
- Dandelion greens
- Gentian root
- Burdock and more
Bitters are also available as tinctures. Placing the recommended dosage of bitter concentrated blends on your tongue about 10 minutes before a meal will increase your gastric secretions. You can purchase ready blends from your local food stores or online at places like Organic Olivia, Urban Moonshine, or Patriot Health Alliance. I love that these are compact and easy to take on the go.
What foods produce stomach acid?
In addition to digestive bitters, there are other foods that operate in a similar way, by increasing acid production in the stomach. Many of these foods can easily be incorporated into dishes or drinks that you already consume. Here is brief list of such foods:
- Black Pepper– try spicing up dishes with more pepper than salt
- Probiotic Fermented foods– some great options are pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, tempeh, miso, cheese and kombucha
- Apple Cider Vinegar– you can use it in your cooking or try diluting some in a cup of water as a drink
- Lemon– this can easily be added to salad dressings, chicken or fish, and squeezed into water or tea
- Healthy fats– fat along with your meal sends the signal to your stomach to ramp up digestion by secreting more acid
If you’ve tried the above options and are still struggling with symptoms of low stomach acid, supplementation is the next option. Betaine HCL is an acid supplement that acts similarly to the HCL in the stomach. Betaine HCl should be taken immediately prior to meals for the best results (7). Always consult with your health care clinician before starting a new supplement.
The one I recommend is by Klaire Labs, check out my FullScript to purchase it.
Dealing with low stomach acid and its bothersome symptoms is never fun. I hope these natural methods I’ve provided you with will help you get back to feeling like your best self soon. Remember to try the food and lifestyle approaches before moving to supplementation and always discuss any supplement use with your doctor or registered dietitian.
As always, if you feel you can use some more one-on-one guidance from a dietitian who is skilled in this area, feel free to reach out to me, Marie Murphy, MS, RDN, CLT!