Lots of people experience heartburn on a regular basis, where acid refluxes up into the esophagus and burns the tissue resulting in pain. Doctors commonly recommend medications such as Nexium, Prilosec, or Prevacid to suppress stomach acid (HCl) and treat heartburn pain. However, more and more research is showing that the long-term use of these medications can do more harm than good. That is why it is critical to look for the root cause(s) of heartburn rather than simply reducing stomach acid, and to understand the reasons why stomach acid is good for you.
Two very important roles of stomach acid include:
1. Helping to prevent bacterial overgrowth. The stomach’s acidic environment is necessary for helping to keep pathogenic bacteria and yeast in check. Without the proper amount of HCl, harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, can proliferate and cause GI infections.
2. Aiding in the absorption of nutrients. Stomach acid is secreted at the start of meals to aid in the digestion of food. HCl is necessary for the breakdown of protein and stimulates the release of other enzymes and bile, all critical for the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates and fats. Vitamins and minerals need stomach acid for their absorption. That is why individuals on acid-blocking drugs run a risk of multiple nutrient deficiencies (including vitamin B12, magnesium, calcium, iron, folate, and zinc), as well as an increased risk of bone fractures.
It generally comes as a surprise to most people, but often the root cause of heartburn is not an overproduction of HCl, but rather an underproduction that is caused by inflammation of the lining of the stomach (gastritis) and damage to the esophageal sphincter. Common causes include a hiatal hernia, H. pylori infection, certain medications, obesity, aging, as well as lifestyle choices and dietary habits. Beyond heartburn pain, other symptoms of low stomach acid include, bloating, belching, gas, Candida overgrowth, food intolerances, hair loss, cracked fingernails, fatigue, diarrhea, and undigested food in the stool.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, I recommend working with a nutritionist or integrative doctor to determine whether your symptoms are due to over- or underproduction of stomach acid. He or she can help to uncover the root cause(s) of your digestive complaints and create a personalized treatment plan for you. There are many diet and lifestyle recommendations, as well as safe and effective nutritional supplements that can help restore the optimal functioning of your digestive system. Digestive enzymes, HCl tablets, soothing herbs, probiotics and digestive bitters, are all examples of helpful supplements.
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