Our digestion affects every aspect of our health. The most common symptoms of indigestion include acid reflux, bloating, gas, food sensitivities, and constipation/diarrhea, but inadequate digestion also leads to a slough of other imbalances. Poor digestion leads to malabsorption, which eventually manifests as nutrient deficiencies. This can act as the root cause of many conditions including blood sugar imbalances, dampening of the senses (poor eyesight, decreased sense of smell and taste), cognitive decline, and osteoporosis, to name a few. But one ailment of the digestive system is particularly prevalent, especially in the aging population – an underactive stomach, or hypochlorydria. Hypochlorydria is the deficiency of stomach acid, also known as hydrochloric acid, resulting in reduced digestive function.
Although popular health and wellness trends advertise “alkalinizing” diets to be the new “magic cure-all” for disease, our bodies actually require specific pH levels for survival. For instance, the pH of our blood varies between 7.35 – 7.45, and any change far outside of that range quickly results in death. Although not as dramatic, our stomachs are similar – the ideal pH of our stomach acid is between 1.5 – 2.2, however can realistically range from about 1.5 – 3.5. To be clear, the lower the pH, the more acidic; the higher the pH, the more basic (or alkaline).
As the acidity of our stomach is reduced, our ability to properly break down nutrients is decreased. An enzyme produced in the stomach called pepsin is inhibited with inadequate hydrochloric acid, resulting in an increased demand on the pancreas to produce digestive enzymes. This leads to pancreatic exhaustion, which results in a deficiency of enzymes, further hindering digestion. Secondarily, fermentation of carbohydrates in the gut occurs, leading to gas, bloating, and acid reflux. It also leads to microbial overgrowth, including candida. Overgrowth of candida, also called candidiasis, presents as extreme fatigue, poor memory and concentration, sugar and carbohydrate cravings, and mood instability. Collectively, the resulting undigested food particles from hypochlorydria can also lead to leaky gut, food sensitivities/allergies, and a sluggish liver.
One of the highest risk factors for an underactive stomach is age. Our production of hydrochloric acid tends to decrease as we get older, so those over 50 are more likely to suffer. Additionally, a diet high in caffeine, carbonated beverages, alcohol, refined sugar, and dairy can contribute to this condition. Beyond what is on our plates, our lifestyle and habits affect the production of stomach acid. Eating on the run (think: drive through meals, eating in the car, grabbing an energy bar before yoga class) has a negative effect on our digestion. The anticipation, sight, and smell of food actually stimulates gastric juices, preparing the body to go through the process of digestion, so when we fail to slow down and eat mindfully and intentionally, we eliminate a vital step at mealtime. Stress is another major cause of indigestion. It is important to note that stress doesn’t just refer to emotional turmoil, but is often unsuspected, and can stem from the many sources. This includes the physical body (chronic over exercising), psychological hurdles (emotional stress), or dietary sources (caffeine, stimulants, blood sugar imbalance). Regardless of the root cause of stress, or how it manifests, this shunts blood away from the digestion tract, including both the stomach and intestines. This reduces stomach acid and enzyme production, decreases circulation to digestive organs, and results in weakened digestive function. Additionally, chronic use of antacids including over-the-counter antacids, baking soda, and other heartburn treatments can be a cause of low hydrochloric acid.
Symptoms of an underactive stomach include bloating and gas, diarrhea and/or constipation, undigested food in the stool, candidiasis, chronic dysbiosis (imbalanced gut flora), and mineral deficiency (most commonly iron and zinc). Additionally, individuals may experience increasing food sensitivities/allergies, and nausea after taking supplements. Weak, peeling, cracked fingernails, and dull hair or hair loss can indicate mineral or protein deficiency as a result of stomach acid deficiency.
Improving symptoms of an underactive stomach can be done using organic apple cider vinegar. Add one tablespoon of the vinegar to a cup of room temperate or hot water (cold water inhibits digestion), and drink it 15 to 30 minutes before meals. Ensure you get the raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar with the mother – this is the bacterial culture that ferments the vinegar, which provides enzymes and bacteria to improve your digestion. The acidity of the vinegar also stimulates the production of hydrochloric acid.
Slowing down to eat mindfully, reducing stress, and choosing whole foods over processed or refined foods is the first major step to improving your digestion. Using apple cider vinegar as a digestive tonic may also help improve symptoms of an underactive stomach, increasing nutrient absorption, reducing symptoms of indigestion, and improving food sensitivities.
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.
Originally published: May 2018 in “50+ Living” in the Comox Valley Record for Edible Island Whole Foods Market