For years it was thought the cause of indigestion, stomach ulcers, and gastric reflux was the presence of too much acid in the stomach. However, research shows the cause of these issues is actually too little stomach acid. Stomach acid, or hydrochloric acid (HCL), is necessary to ensure the proper digestion of your food, protect you from pathogenic bacteria, and prevent the backflow of food into your esophagus and throat. If our stomach is not acidic enough, our gastro-esophageal sphincter will not close and we can get back flow of acid into our throat (esophagus) which causes heartburn (gerd). Without adequate stomach acid, vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamin B12, are not fully absorbed into the body. For example, if you are supplementing with calcium and magnesium in an effort to improve the strength of your bones but do not have enough stomach acid, the supplements will not be effective.
To determine whether you have adequate stomach acid, your doctor will have you perform one of the two tests below:
- First thing in the morning, before eating or drinking anything, mix ¼ tsp baking soda in 4 to 6 ounces of cold water. Drink the baking soda solution and set a timer for 5 minutes. Record and note the time anything happens over the next five minutes and bring the results to your doctor at your next visit.
- The betaine HCL test requires some trial and error, but you will finish the test with an exact dosage for how much HCL you need supplementally. For this test you will start by taking one betaine HCL pill right before eat. If you do not feel a “burn”, you will then take two pills right before your next meal. You will continue to up the pills one by one for each meal until you feel a burning sensation. Once you feel a burn, you will take one pill off and this will become your dosage. Once you begin to feel a burn at this dosage, you will again drop by one pill. This is not a long-term solution for lack of stomach acid, but it is a good way to kick start your digestion. It will also aid in vitamin and mineral adsorption so you have the energy and motivation to improve stomach acid naturally through weight-bearing exercise, improved posture, and stress management strategies. When dosing the supplement if you have an uncomfortable burn you can drink some baking soda in water to neutralize the acid. Make sure to lower the dosage at the next meal.
If your doctor determines your stomach acid levels are too low, here are some natural ways to boost HCL production in the stomach and ensure healthier digestion:
- Consume apple cider vinegar. Put ½ tablespoon up to 2 tablespoons in 8-12 ounces of water. Drink this solution first thing in the morning and before bed. If apple cider vinegar makes you nauseous, start with ½ tbsp and slowly build up to 2 tbsp.
- If you don’t struggle with heartburn add fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice to your water and drink throughout the day.
- Eat grapefruit and fermented foods (sauerkraut, kombucha, pickled foods (pickled beets, etc) to help stimulate HCL production. Eat pineapple and papaya to increase digestive enzymes.
- Use vinegars (red wine, white wine, balsamic, etc.) as a salad dressing or marinade.
- Drink celery or cabbage juice.
- Chew on celery, pumpkin seeds, or beeswax throughout the day. In addition to stimulating HCL production, this will also help heal your stomach lining, and boost metabolism for fat loss.
- Mindfully chew your food. The physical act of chewing will stimulate HCL production and help digest your food via adequate release of salivary enzymes triggered in the mouth by chewing.
- Limit fluid intake with meals as it dilutes your stomach acid. Drink your fluids in between meals.
- ONE glass of wine with a meal can help add some acidity to your stomach to aid with digestion
- To improve digestion after meals limit sitting and laying down, go for light walks, perform light chores, stand, etc.
Finally, make sure you are in a calm and relaxed state before eating your meals. When you are in a stressed state (sympathetics), your body does not produce stomach acid or digest your food. Take 4 deep, slow breaths prior to eating, reflecting on how lucky you are to have an abundance of healthy food to fuel your body. Gratitude is excellent for your brain and digestive health!
If you have sensitivities or allergies to any of the suggested foods on the list please continue to avoid them and consume the ones you can tolerate. Food allergies and sensitivities start because of increased sympathetics and therefore decreased stomach acid. As we repair your gut, increase stomach acid, and decrease sympathetics you will begin to tolerate foods you couldn’t tolerate prior.
If you struggle with heartburn (GERD) it is best to avoid citrus, caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods, peppermint, and eating after 7pm as we repair your stomach. These foods and activities can cause relaxation of your stomach valve which can cause regurgitation of acid into your throat/chest.
1. Use Magnesium, Not Melatonin
For a supplement option, utilize magnesium to promote healthier sleep. Magnesium can act as an inducer of GABA, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter of the body. GABA helps the body slow down internal processes, especially in the nervous system. By decreasing facilitation of nerves, we help the nerves and the muscles they supply recover, which is extremely important for successful repeat athletic performances. Magnesium comes in many different forms or ‘chelates’, and research suggests that magnesium threonate is the best inducer of GABA in the body, and will ultimately be the best choice for athletic recovery during sleep. Other supplements supported by the research include chamomile, kava kava, and Valerian root.
However, be careful about the popular sleep supplement, melatonin. While very effective for some people, it’s important to remember that melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the body. This means that if you are taking the hormone externally, you run the risk of turning off your body’s natural production of the hormone, so reserve this supplement as a last ditch effort.
2. Avoid Late Night Workouts and Meals
Your late night workout or large meal close to bedtime may be disrupting your sleep. Working out late at night can increase levels of our ‘awake’ hormone, cortisol, and decrease the body’s natural release of our ‘sleep’ hormone, melatonin. Additionally, we induce a “fight or flight” sympathetic state when working out, which will make falling asleep more difficult. Shoot to finish your workout before 7pm to ensure that you give your body adequate time to calm down and relax before you go to sleep. If your schedule absolutely requires that you workout late at night, make sure to utilize effective down regulation strategies after your workout to turn off your sympathetic system and activate your “rest and digest” parasympathetic system. Excellent down regulation strategies include post workout foam rolling, static stretching, and deep breathing exercises.
Choosing to eat dinner late at night may also disrupt your sleep. Embedded in the lining of the digestive tract is the enteric nervous system, a complex web of neurons that has been called the ‘second brain.’ The enteric nervous system is important for the muscular contractions that move food through the digestive tract, the secretion of digestive enzymes, and communication with the brain via the vagus nerve. The importance of the connection between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve cannot be understated, especially when one considers that 90% of the nerve communication moves from the gut to the brain. In regards to healthy sleep, it makes sense that an active digestive system will send stimulatory signals from the digestive tract to the brain, keeping us awake at night. Keeping this in mind, I like to finish eating at least 90 minutes before bedtime.
3. Foam Rolling for the Nervous System
Many professional athletes utilize massage therapy as a post-performance or before bed treatment. Massage has been shown to decrease cortisol levels (which are naturally high after exercise), while increasing serotonin and oxytocin, two hormones associated with relaxation and our parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ state. While most of us do not have access to a nightly massage, a 10-minute foam rolling session before bed can have a similar down-regulating effect on the nervous system and promote healthy sleep. Focus on the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, as these areas may be prone to tightness after a full day of exercise or after a long day of sitting at work.
4. Consistency is Key
As with any health and fitness related goal you are looking to achieve in life, consistency and adherence to a predetermined plan is essential. Make it a point to wake up, as well as go to sleep, within the same 60 to 90 minute time frame every morning and evening, even on the weekends. Do your best to schedule social activities during the day and evening so that you don’t feel like you missed out on anything by not staying up late on the weekends. Sporting events, outdoor activities like skiing and hiking, or a trip to the botanical gardens are excellent ways to have fun on the weekends without sacrificing your sleep schedule.
Want to learn more? Check out Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson. Many of the ideas mentioned above are draw on methods from this book.
Post Written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC. Check out his bio here.