June, 2011, Vol. 12, Issue 06
By Marlene Merritt, DOM, LAc, ACN
The ads are all over TV and magazines – if you have heartburn, you should take one of the acid-reducing medications that are out there, preferably for the rest of your life. It’s true, acid reflux is dangerous and it is vital to stop it before it does permanent damage.
Most of us treat people with acid reflux, sour stomachs, gas and bloating and many other digestive symptoms. And yet, most of them are suffering not from too much stomach acid, but from not enough.
Not enough? How can that be?
The function of your stomach acid is to digest protein. When someone has their stomach acid “turned off,” they can’t digest well (more on what turns off stomach acid in a moment). When someone eats a piece of chicken, it lands in the stomach, and needs hydrochloric acid to break it down. When there isn’t enough hydrochloric acid, the protein sits in the stomach and starts to putrefy, creating acid and gases. The person might have some symptoms — a sour stomach, belching, or even acid reflux. But, this all happened because they initially didn’t have enough acid to digest properly.
If you have good amounts of stomach acid, it closes the upper sphincter of the stomach when you eat to prevent that good acid from going up into the esophagus. And, it also opens the lower sphincter to empty your stomach after the food has been digested. But if you don’t have enough acid, not only can you not digest the protein, but the upper sphincter doesn’t close tightly enough, causing acid reflux and potential damage to the esophagus. Low stomach acid also causes the lower stomach sphincter to stay closed, which leads to the Spleen qi symptom of “fullness after eating.” It’s not the normal feeling of being full after eating, it’s being overly full, because the stomach doesn’t empty properly.
So, how does the stomach acid get turned off? And what can be done about it? The main reasons that stomach acid gets turned off is from stress — stress from high carb intake (high sugar levels are enormously stressful for the body), mental stress (Wood overacting on Earth, causing qi stagnation), physical stresses like excessive exercise, or physical stresses like inflammation, infections, anemia, or food intolerances. People who have had gastric bypass surgeries will often have the acid-producing part of their stomach removed. We’d estimate that a minimum of 90 percent of the people we see in the clinic have reduced stomach acid. So what do these patients look like?
They’re people with blood sugar issues (that’s nearly everyone), with Spleen qi deficiency symptoms of gas (especially gas with smell), bloating, “fullness,” or with stomach Fire symptoms of acidity or sour stomach, or acid reflux. People with constipation or with a loss of appetite for meat – that is a classic sign of low stomach acid. Also people who don’t eat meat because it “doesn’t digest well.” Older people lose some of their ability to produce stomach acid, often when they need it most — to digest protein to keep muscle mass, and for vitamins and minerals. Consider someone’s age, as well as their symptoms when evaluating them.
Now, most people simply need supplementation of digestible HCl, known as betaine hydrochloride, for three to six months to restore proper acidity to the stomach and eliminate the symptoms they’re having. Some herbs for stomach Fire are antacid herbs. Understandable, since the practitioner would like to put the fire out. But again, the root cause is that there’s not enough stomach acid, so you will want to add in some betaine hydrochloride.