Stomach acid is the unsung hero in the digestive process. It’s a fundamental component in breaking down our food and developing new cells that help build us from the inside out. This incredible process has some extra benefits to our bodies that not a lot of people are aware of.
So, what is stomach acid exactly?
Gastric acid, or what most people call stomach acid, is vital in the proper breaking down of your food. It’s composed of multiple compounds and enzymes, which form the fiery cocktail of hydrochloric acid (HCI), potassium chloride and sodium chloride.
As the name suggests, it’s highly acidic with a low pH of 1-2, so it’s great for breaking down the structure of proteins from food into amino acids – aka the building blocks of new cells. The hydrochloric acid component is initially produced by cells in the lining of the stomach and is one of the most important factors in absorbing minerals such as zinc and iron.
Gastric acid also plays multiple roles in our guts, but its primary role is to break down food and help degrade proteins and polysaccharides for the next stage of digestion in the small intestine. It also defends plays a role in protecting us from any food-based infections and things like food poisoning.
Stomach acid is key in preventing allergies
Antigens are substances (usually proteins) on the surface of cells like viruses or bacteria and a high number of antigens trigger or stimulate allergies. One of stomach acid’s roles is to help break down these proteins. It does this by rendering their three dimensional, complex structures and encourages them to clump, making these proteins less allergenic and easier to digest.
Problems occur though if the stomach has insufficient levels of acid, meaning that larger fragments of proteins can enter the small intestine. If your gut is inflamed or torn, these larger protein molecules (macromolecules) could enter your bloodstream through the intestinal wall known as the epithelial lining. This triggers an immune response and the development of antibodies against those forms of proteins, generating an allergic reaction to foods containing those specific proteins down the line. Imagine suddenly becoming allergic to your favourite food?
Antacids and proton pump inhibitors – the effects
Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) are one of the most widely prescribed drugs today. Their purpose is to prevent and treat acid-related conditions, such as acid reflux, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), ulcers, and Zollinger-Ellison syndrome. While in some cases, using PPIs is a necessary treatment to clear the stomach of acids, their stark rise and prolonged use could be causing potential problems.
But why is their efficiency a bad thing? Decades of possible overuse means that there has been a rise in conditions such as gastric cancer, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), IBS, Fibromyalgia and Type 2 Diabetes, with another underlying problem being disrupted bowel flora.
Due to the suppression of gastric acid, PPI’s seriously increase the risk of bacterial growth, such as clostridium difficile (C. diff), which is the bacteria that can infect the bowel, cause diarrhoea and salmonella related gastritis. Not only that, C.diff bacteria damages the gut’s microbiome, which can contribute to other health implications down the line.
Don’t be bitter about bitters
Let’s talk bitters. I think you can guess by the name what they taste like, but some natural foods that are bitter have certain positive, acid boosting effects on the body.
Bitter compounds upregulate the natural digestion processes by stimulating the vagus nerve, alerting the body to oncoming food and aiding in stomach acid production.
Peristalsis increases (the movement and contraction of the intestinal muscles to help deliver food) making room for the new food. Your pancreas then starts secreting essential enzymes and your liver, stomach and gall bladder all get kicked into action too. So, not only are you generating more enzymes and acids to break down the food, but you’re also kick-starting your entire digestive system.
Bitter greens such as dandelion, watercress, rocket, and apple cider vinegar are excellent additions to your diet. There’s also the option of incorporating citrus peels such as lemon rind or orange zest to salads and maybe a cube or two of dark chocolate for the more sweet-toothed among us (but try and stay away from sweeter milk chocolate if you take this option).