Gas. Bloating. Heartburn. Indigestion. Bacterial overgrowth like candida.
Many people deal with these issues every day. In hindsight, I wish I would have discussed this topic more often with my clients when I was still doing one-on-one training. It’s sometimes a bit uncomfortable to have a conversation about it, but digestive issues are common and come with a number of pretty serious problems.
It isn’t normal, and taking an antacid probably isn’t the right solution.
A faulty digestive system could be leaving protein, fat, vitamins and minerals unabsorbed, and setting you up for future infections.
Squats, deadlifts and leg presses are no fun when you have gas. It’s hard to be the life of the party if you want to go out. And it can be frustrating to put on your fancy clothes for a night out when you’re bloated.
Acid levels in the stomach are critical to your ability to digest and absorb nutrients, and, limit the levels of bad bacteria that thrive in your digestive system.
In this article, I’ll discuss the importance of maintaining normal pH levels in the stomach, what happens when things go awry, and talk about HCL Enzyme Complex, a supplement designed to bring the stomach environment back to normal.
The Importance of An Acidic Stomach
The pH of a healthy stomach is usually 1.0-2.0. Battery acid has a pH of 1.0, so we’re talking about a really acidic environment.
One of the benefits of this highly acidic environment is that it helps keep the rest of the digestive tract more sterile. It’s difficult for pathogenic bacteria to survive in this acidic environment. If the acid level starts to fall (pH begins to rise), it can reduce the stomach’s ability to kill off pathogens.[i]
Microbes begin to accumulate in the stomach when the pH exceeds 4.0 and can significantly increase at a pH over 5.0.[ii]
The growth of the wrong kind of bacteria can lead to socially gas, diminished vitamin and mineral absorption, bloating and even certain types of cancer.
Because the acidic environment is important for the breakdown and absorption of food, rising pH levels may limit the absorption of macro- and micronutrients.
Possibly worst of all (at least for the fitness-minded individual), this subpar ability to digest and absorb food may limit recovery from exercise and the ability to add lean mass.
Causes of Low Stomach Acid
People tend to produce less stomach acid as they age. This could be one of the reasons aging adults need to eat greater amounts of protein to avoid muscle or bone loss.[iii]
High exercise volume or intensity may also reduce the secretion of gastric acids and affect gastric function.[iv]
Chronic stress can also lead to gastric dysfunction.
Low Stomach Acid and Nutrient Deficiency
Normally, hydrochloride (HCl) is secreted at the very beginning of a meal, or even in anticipation of the meal, to support the digestion of the food and help maintain the normal pH of the stomach.
HCl converts pepsinogen into pepsin, an enzyme that assists the breakdown of protein. It also stimulates the release of other enzymes and bile that support the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, fats and vitamins A and E.[vii]
HCl also aids in the absorption of folate, vitamin C, beta-carotene and iron by helping them release from food and enhancing their bioavailability.[viii]
Calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, chromium, selenium, manganese, vanadium, molybdenum and cobalt are also poorly absorbed when stomach acid levels are low.[ix]
Low stomach acid levels not only hamper digestion and absorption of food and nutrients, but it can also increase the risk of gastric cancer.[x]
Certain drugs have less of an effect when an individual’s stomach pH levels are abnormal.[xi]
Contrary to what most people think, heartburn is a symptom of insufficient stomach acid production, not excess stomach acid. Other symptoms of low stomach acid include bloating and indigestion. Unfortunately, many people take antacids which make the problem even worse.
Allergies, gallstones and asthma are also associated with impaired acid secretion.
To summarize, low stomach acid can limit absorption of amino acids from protein, vitamin C, folate, beta-carotene, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, chromium, selenium, manganese, vanadium, molybdenum and cobalt.
Low Stomach Acid and Bacterial Overgrowth
The balance of good and bad bacteria in the digestive tract has become a popular area of interest. While probiotics provide support for the balance of good bacteria, low stomach acid levels may open the door for growth of bad bacteria, offsetting their effects.
The highly acidic environment of a healthy stomach tends to kill pathogenic bacteria, but when acid levels fall, they may make it through the stomach and colonize in the intestines.
When stomach acids are maintained in their normal pH range of 1-2, ingested E. coli is inactivated, so maintaining normal stomach acid levels can prevent this bacteria from causing health problems.
Infection by another bacteria, H. pylori, is strongly correlated with low stomach acid levels as well.[xii] H. pylori is a cause of common digestive problems such as gastric ulcer disease and gastritis.[xiii]
In an animal study, overgrowth of H. pylori led to iron deficiency. This is interesting because so many highly active females have low iron levels.[xiv]
In some, supplementing with additional iron can be an effective solution, but others may need to improve the environment of the stomach and/or intestines to get rid of the bacteria hampering absorption.
Another study showed that when stomach acids were low, it led to the overgrowth of Bifidobacteriaceae in the stomach. These bacteria are typically only found in the mouth and intestines, not in the stomach.[xv]
As you can imagine, the use of acid lowering medication (prescription or over-the-counter) may reduce acid levels enough to allow bacteria to grow as well. I’ve met many people over the years who took began taking antacids to deal with minor digestive upset and in time, were taking much more to deal with further problems.
The issue wasn’t too much stomach acid; it was not enough. By taking the antacids, things got worse.
Gastric Support | HCL Enzyme Complex
HCL Enzyme Complex contains a blend of five ingredients to assist with digestion and help normalize the stomach environment.*
Like other products manufactured by Thorne, the individual ingredients are very pure. Interestingly, many digestive support supplements are diluted with lactose. It makes manufacturing easier, but for someone who is sensitive to lactose, the product they’re taking to improve their digestive function could make things worse.[xvi]
Unfortunately for consumers, the lactose may not be disclosed on the label because it was part of the original raw material, not added as part of the formula. It’s another example of why you should only use products made by the most respected manufacturers. If a supplement brand won’t disclose who makes their product, use caution.
Thorne does not use lactose-diluted ingredients. They are pure and free of lactose.
Betaine hydrochloride and pepsin are included, and should be taken together whenever someone is trying to improve gastric function.* The reason is that if an individual is producing insufficient acid, it’s likely he or she also produces insufficient pepsin which is important for digesting protein.*
Betaine hydrochloride is a stabilized form of hydrochloric acid and has been shown to quickly lower stomach pH levels in those with hypochlorhydria.xi*
L-glutamic hydrochloride is another stabilized form of hydrochloric acid included in the formula to further help lower pH levels.*
Pancreatin includes the pancreatic enzymes, protease for protein digestion, lipase for fat digestion, and amylase for carbohydrates digestion.* Ox bile also supports the digestion of fat.*
Using HCL Enzyme Complex
It is recommended to take HCL Enzyme Complex at the beginning of a meal. It should not be used on an empty stomach.
The ideal dose varies between one and three capsules, taken toward the beginning of meal, but ideal doses are very individualized.
Once an ideal, individualized dose is determined, HCL Enzyme Complex should be taken with each meal.*The ideal dose may vary over time as a result of dietary changes, health changes, aging and other factors.* It’s rare that someone would use more than three capsules with a meal.
An ideal dose may vary from meal to meal as well, if the protein content of the meals varies significantly. Dinner at Fogo De Chao may require more HCL Enzyme Complex for proper digestion than a breakfast of a few eggs and some chicken sausage.*
If you notice a warming sensation when using HCL Enzyme Complex, back off by one capsule per meal.
HCl Enzyme Complex is not recommended for those with ulcers, or taking medication that may irritate the lining of the stomach, such as NSAIDs.
There’s no doubt that nutrition plays an important role in our health, and that our nutrition comes from the foods we eat. However, we only gain the benefit of those nutrients if we can break down and absorb them.
The stomach plays a very important role contributing to much of the digestion, and some of the absorption of nutrients.
If the stomach does its job with the foods we eat, the intestines, and the probiotics in them, can do their job.
Thanks for reading. If you liked the information or learned something new, please pass it along.
Looking for more help? Schedule a consultation with one of our nutrition coaches, and be sure to
[i] Monograph. Hydrochloric Acid. Alt Med Rev. 2002
[ii] Väkeväinen S, Tillonen J, Salaspuro M, Jousimies-Somer H, Nuutinen H, Färkkilä M. Hypochlorhydria induced by a proton pump inhibitor leads to intragastric microbial production of acetaldehyde from ethanol. Ailment Pharmacol Ther. 2000;14(11):1511-8
[iii] Heaney RP, Layman DK. Amount and type of protein influences bone health. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87(suppl):1567S-70S
[iv] Bi L, Triadafilopoulos G. Exercise and gastrointestinal function and disease: an evidence-based review of risks and benefits. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2003;1(5):345-55
[v] Kimura K, Satoh K, Saifuku K, Taniguchi Y, Hiratsuka H. Concept of specification for biopsy sites. Dig Endosc. 2001;12:217-220
[vi] Dicksved J, Lindberg M, Rosenquist M, Enroth H, Jansson JK, Engstrand L. Molecular characterization of the stomach microbiota in patients with gastric cancer and in controls. J Med Microbiol. 2009;58:509–16
[vii] Tang G, Serfaty-Lacrosniere C, Camilo ME, and Russell RM. Gastric acidity influences the blood response to a beta-carotene dose in humans. Am J Clin Nutr.1996;64:622-626
[viii] Saltzman JR, Kemp JA, Golner BB, et al. Effect of hypochlorhydria due to omeprazole treatment or atrophic gastritis on protein bound vitamin B12 absorption. JAmer Coll Nutr 1994;13:584-591
[ix] English J. Gastric Balance: Heartburn Not Always Caused by Excess Acid. Nutrition Review. April 22 2013. Accessed April 24 2014. http://nutritionreview.org/2013/04/gastric-balance-heartburn-caused-excess-acid/
[x] El-Omar, EM, Penman ID, Ardill JE, Chittajallu RS, Howie C, McColl KE. Helicobacter pylori infection and abnormalities of acid secretion in patients with duodenal ulcer disease. Gastroenterology. 1995;109:681-691
[xi] Yago MAR, Frymoyer AR, Smelick GS, Frassetto LA, Budha NR, et al. Gastric Re-acidification witih Betaine HCl in Healthy Volunteers with Rebeprazole-Induced Hypochlorhydria. Mol Pharm. 2013 Nov 4;10(11):4032-7. doi: 10.1021/mp4003738
[xii] Morihara M, Aoyagi N, Kaniwa N, Kojima S, Ogata H.Assessment of gastric acidity of Japanese subjects over the last 15 years. Biol Pharm Bull 2001. Mar;24(3):313-5.
[xiii] Young DG. A stain for demonstrating Helicobacter pylori in gastric biopsies. Biotech Histochem 2001 Jan;76(1):31-4.
[xiv] Thomson MJ, Pritchard DM, Boxall SA, Abuderman AA, Williams JM, et al. Gastric Helicobacter infection induces iron deficiency in the INS-GAS mouse. PLoS One.2012;7(11):e50194 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050194
[xv] Mattarelli P, Brandi G, Calabrese C, Fornari F, Prati GM, et al. Occurrence of Bifidobacteriaceae in human hypochlorhydria stomach. Micro Eco Health Dis. 2014;25:21379 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/mehd.v25.21379
[xvi] Roxas M. The Role of Enzyme Supplementation in Digestive Disorders. Alt Med Rev. 2008;13:307-314
|*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.|