This condition is very under-rated. Most people think they have too much stomach acid, but actually that’s not often true when you test. It can be confusing because you get the same symptoms of heartburn and indigestion if it’s too low or too high. The trick is to know which.
Hypochlorydia means the inadequate production of stomach acid (betaine HCl) by the parietal cells in the stomach. Achlorydia means a complete lack of stomach acid production.
Some experts believe that about half of all people over 65 suffer hypochlorydia – and certainly it’s known that the amount of acid we produce gets lower as we get over about 40, although I have found it very often in much younger people.
It’s vital that we have enough stomach acid so that we can break down food and release nutrients, but also to kill off any opportunistic baddies coming into our bodies via the mouth, eg. yeasts and bacteria. We need enough acid to absorb B12 and minerals effectively – I think this is a big reason why I find so many people low in minerals generally. Also, by breaking down food effectively, we get fewer antigens into the bloodstream and therefore less food intolerance/sensitivity symptoms.
Symptoms of Low Stomach Acid
The symptoms of hypochlorydia can be exactly the same as having too much stomach acid. Often, a person who has acidity, heartburn or reflex actually has poor stomach acid production. This happens because the signal to stop producing it doesn’t get triggered because the acid level is too low, so the body simply carries on producing it and you then get acidity problems. Yes, too much acid in the stomach and gullet, but for a very different reason.
The other mechanism is to do with a weakening LES. The lower eosophageal sphincter (LES) separates the stomach from the oesophagus. In between meals, it is supposed to be closed to prevent the backflow of food into the oesophagus. However, when there isn’t enough stomach acid, the food isn’t digested properly, often leading to an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine (SIBO). These bacteria feed on and ferment undigested carbohydrates resulting in the feeling of fullness, discomfort, bloating and distension. This causes an increase in intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), which relaxes the LES and pushes the stomach contents and acid into the oesophagus. Other factors such as obesity, inflammation (poor diet, smoking, high alcohol intake), high intake of caffeinated drinks, spices, mint and chocolate can all relax LES and make symptoms worse.
Most people taking antacids probably have a low acid issue and aren’t taking the right remedy at all. In my experience about 1 in 10 people with acid problems actually do have too much stomach acid (see here if this is you) – the rest have hypochlorydia or a different problem such as a food intolerance.
Other clues of Hypochlorydia include burping, bloating, feeling too full after eating (unless you genuinely have eaten too much!), constipation, diarrhoea, fatigue, hair loss and weak and flaky fingernails. Acne can even be related.
Obviously, if you’re not breaking down nutrients in food properly, any symptoms could be related to a deficiency of a nutrient, or to toxins being produced by an opportunistic bacteria, mould, yeast or parasite.
What Causes It?
So, why might HCl production be low? You might not have enough histidine, zinc, B6 or B1 to produce HCl, but you also need HCl to get enough of these so it’s a catch 22 situation. Stress can impair production. Trauma such as emotional shock or a burn can stop it suddenly. Alcohol and food allergy substances can damage the parietal cells in the stomach and this affects production. You can also have parietal cell autoimmunity, which I can test for if necessary, just ask.
Bacteria such as Helicobacter Pylori can affect stomach acid levels too – most often those with too much acid have this problem. See Gut Tests for testing.
Testing Low Stomach Acid
There are a couple of ways to test stomach acid.
There’s the bicarb test to see how much you burp once an alkaline substance is introduced to the stomach. There’s the acidity test where you see if extra acid hurts more or less using a little cider vinegar or lemon juice in water to see if the acid gets worse or better (use an antacid if it gets worse!) Most often it gets better or no change though and that is your real clue. Really. Promise, it does answer the question for you!
If either of those look suspect, you can do the Betaine test where you can get an idea of how little stomach acid you’re actually producing. Follow the instructions in the plan below for this one.
Or, you can do the GastroPanel in the Gut Tests section which will help evaluate the whole stomach health for you as well as whether you have high or low stomach acid and what the consequences of that might be for you specifically, looking at your individual marker pattern.
Whichever way you test for it, if you find it, that’s a really important result.
Remember: you are not just what you eat, but what you can absorb. No absorption over time means low nutrients, sluggish systems and early degenerative disease.
Simple to find. Simple to correct. But oh so important not to miss it!
The Low Stomach Acid and Enzyme Factsheet
In it, you’ll find an introduction to the issue, how to do the home tests mentioned and be able to access the right lab tests if needed. I have given a detailed, product-specific treatment plan and gone through the top causes of the problem so you can address any that apply and don’t have to be taking extra stomach acid and enzymes your whole life!
There are also several non-supplement ideas for you to have a go at too.
I also discuss stomach acid quite a bit as part of the more detailed Gut Plan. The Gut Plan is designed to sort out your digestive and gut issues including indigestion, acid reflux, wind, bloating, mushy or constipated bowels as well as work as a foundational MOT sort of plan – we used to use this for pretty much every case that came into clinic as a first step and it sorted out most people or gave them a good head start!
If that sounds like something you need, you can read more about that here.