When speaking about the digestive system, one area of focus often revolves around hydrochloric acid, otherwise known as HCL. HCL is an acid that’s found in the stomach and is going to play a key role in the digestion of your food.
All of us naturally have some degree of HCL in our bodies, however at times, we can either be producing too much of it, or in other cases, not enough.
In either scenario, there are negative health results that can come along with this.
To get a better idea of what exactly HCL is and it’s relationship to digestion, check out the following video below:
What Is HCL?
Before we talk about the problems of having too much or too little HCL, let’s back up a bit and talk about what, exactly, HCL is. You’ve heard the term before and may vaguely know that it’s an acid that helps with the breakdown of the foods you consume, but do you really have a full understanding of what this substance is?
HCL, which is sometimes just referred to as “gastric juice” or “stomach acid”, is a digestive fluid that is created in the stomach. It’s made up of hydrochloric acid, potassium chloride, as well as sodium chloride and helps assist with the digestion of proteins. When HCL mixes with the proteins, this activates digestive enzymes in the body, which then causes the proteins to become unraveled so that these digestive enzymes can then begin breaking the proteins down into individual chains of amino acids.
In addition to having sufficient HCL, it’s also critical that you have enough digestive enzymes present in your system for proper digestion to take place. If you are taking a quality digestive enzyme product such as Masszymes, this shouldn’t be an issue.
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In a healthy adult individual, 1.5 liters of gastric acid will be secreted by the body each day. This usually happens in three different phases in response to a meal.
First you have the cephalic phase. In this phase, about 30% of your total gastric acid is secreted and is done so in response to the anticipation of eating the meal. You know how when you smell something delicious and your mouth starts watering? There’s more taking place in the body than just an increase in saliva. Your stomach acid is also being secreted in preparation of receiving the food.
The second phase is the gastric phase and this is where about 50% of your total stomach acid is released. This is released in response to a meal and occurs when the stomach becomes distended because it’s begun filling with food and proteins.
Finally, the last phase is the intestinal phase and in this phase, the left over 10% of stomach acid is secreted. This occurs when chyme begins to move into the small intestine.
Without HCL, your body would not be able to digest food as it should and you’d never complete the process of digestion. Most people don’t give it the attention it needs and instead, simply take for granted that their body is making enough.
Often, this isn’t the case though.
Too Much Stomach Acid?
In some unfortunate cases, an individual may begin producing too much stomach acid. It’s critical that you keep the overall level of acidity of the stomach in a healthy range as this is going to help to prevent the bacterial growth of any food residue that may be sitting in the stomach from the process of eating.
But, when so much stomach acid begins occurring that it increases the acidity of this area of the body, pain is going to result. The individual will usually feel an intense burning sensation and is more likely to also go on to experience acid reflux related issues as well.
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So what causes too much stomach acid to be produced? One common cause is diet induced. If you are consuming too many spicy or oily foods, this can signal to the body to produce more HCL, often more than your body can effectively handle.
This is one big reason why those who do suffer from ongoing acid reflux related issues are often told to stay away from such foods.
Another cause of producing too much stomach acid is one that you would otherwise think is very healthy: eating too much dietary fiber. All those efforts you’ve been making to eat more fiber to help reduce cholesterol, combat hunger, and control your body weight could be contributing to an excess buildup of stomach acid as well.
The reason being that because fiber slows the passage of food through the body, there is that continual stretch reflex being placed on the stomach while the food is residing in there. This means production of HCL continues, resulting in you potentially getting too large of a buildup – more than your stomach can safely handle.
This doesn’t mean you should be avoiding fiber entirely, but if you are experiencing a burning sensation in your stomach, it may not be a bad idea to consider cutting back on the frequency in which you are serving yourself fiber. Limit yourself to around 25-30 grams per day if you’re a woman or 30-35 grams per day if you’re a man. If you hit these numbers, you should be doing good as far as your overall health status goes.
The third reason that you might be producing too much stomach acid is a far more serious one – if you actually have a stomach ulcer or cancer that is increasing the production of gastrin (which stimulates the production of HCL).
If you think this could be the cause, it’s imperative that you see your doctor IMMEDIATELY. It’s always better to be safe than sorry with this as catching cancer early is your best defense at combating it.
Living a high stress lifestyle is yet another common cause of the buildup of stomach acid. Research has illustrated that those who are under chronic environmental stress are more likely to experience stomach ulcers, which is a clear sign that you are producing too much stomach acid.
Practicing stress relief tactics such as journaling, deep breathing or meditation, or getting to the root of the stressor and assessing what can be done to combat it are all excellent ways to help reduce the level of stomach acid buildup in the body.
In some cases, infrequent meals can also cause an increase in stomach acid, especially if you are around other people who are eating or normally eat at a certain time. For instance, let’s say you always eat your lunch at 12:30 and then one day, you decide to skip lunch as you’re meeting a friend for lunch at 2pm. If you are still around others who are eating at 12:30, you’re going to get that initial cephalic phase production of HCL as you smell the scent of food around you. And, given that your body is conditioned to receiving food at this time, it’s only going to strengthen that response. So this may lead to excessive amounts of stomach acid brewing and no food coming in to utilize it. Keeping your meals regular and consistent is a great way to combat this.
Finally, the last thing that can cause excess stomach acid for some people is simply not sleeping enough. If you are running low on sleep, you may notice that your stomach acid production is thrown off and you are producing more than normal. A few good night’s rest should help resolve this issue.
The good news is that for the most part, too much stomach acid is easily controlled. Except for the case of disease, by making a few lifestyle and dietary adjustments, you can take control over your stomach acid and start feeling better.
Too Little Stomach Acid?
On the other hand, what if you make too little stomach acid? For other people, this is a big problem. Interestingly, many of the problems associated with too little stomach acid actually mimic the symptoms associated with too much stomach acid.
Those who are not producing enough stomach acid may experience stomach upset, nausea, and pain. This may initially lead you to think you have too much when the opposite is the case.
If you want to test for yourself to see whether you have enough HCL, there are a couple of home tests that can be done. Note though, these should not be done if you know that you are suffering from a stomach ulcer. If you are, seek medical treatment immediately.
The first test is the lemon juice test. When you feel stomach pain coming on, take one tablespoon of lemon juice. If you find that this gives you great relief, then you’ve just uncovered the fact that you aren’t making enough HCL. That lemon juice served to help increase the acidity in the stomach and as such, took care of the problem (temporarily). Obviously lemon juice is not meant to be a replacement for HCL however, so this doesn’t solve your problem, it just indicates that the problem is there.
If on the other hand you noticed that your stomach ache got worse after taking the lemon juice, this is a good indication that you may have too much HCL in your system.
Some people will even be able to do this test without taking in the lemon juice by looking at what they are craving. If you are craving citrus foods such as lemon or grapefruit or you suddenly have the urge to eat sauerkraut, this could be a good indication that you aren’t producing enough HCL.
If you found that the above test improved your pain and therefore indicates that you aren’t producing enough HCL, you could be at risk for a number of different negative consequences. These include:
· Malnutrition and nutritional deficiency due to lack of absorption of nutrients from the foods you eat
· Iron deficiency anemia
· Increased risk of osteoporosis or bone breaks
· Vitamin B12 deficiency (as vitamin B12 is found mostly in protein rich foods and HCL is needed to break down amino acids)
· Increased risk of gallstones as over half the people with gallstones show low HCL secretion
· Increased risk factor for diabetes due to elevated blood sugar levels from malabsorption
· Decreased pancreatic secretion, which means a decreased level of enzymes that actively break down foods. This then leads to furthering your nutritional deficiency symptoms
· Decreased liver function
· Lowered white blood cell count
Having enough stomach acid is critical to your overall state of health, so not something that you can afford to be running low on.
There are a few causes behind having too little stomach acid present in your system.
First, if you eat when you are upset, this can lead to lack of secretion. HCL secretion may be entirely stopped when you are very stressed out, emotional, or worrying excessively. The only exception to this rule is if you are in a high stress situation where you are striving for high achievement (such as in an athletic competition). In that case, it’s more likely that you’ll over-secrete HCL and may actually begin to suffer from a stomach ulcer if you aren’t careful.
Another cause of too little production of HCL is eating a diet that is full of fast foods and nutritional deficient processed foods. If you don’t have sufficient mineral intake in your daily diet, either due to poor food choices or not enough variety, that too can lead to a deficiency in HCL production.
Some people can run a deficiency if they are eating too many carbohydrates or aren’t eating enough zinc rich foods (which are typically animal-based foods rich in protein). Vitamin B deficiency can also be linked to lack of HCL production, as can taking prescription or over the counter drugs that suppress HCL production.
Age is another factor that ties into HCL production because as you get older, you’ll naturally tend to produce less HCL.
Finally, utilizing too many antacids on a regular basis is also linked with lack of HCL levels in the body, so be careful when using these tablets.
Just like with too much production of HCL, the good news is that you can get past this issue by making a few lifestyle adjustments.
First, focus on relaxing at mealtimes. The less stress you are under, the better your chances are of stimulating more HCL production.
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You’ll also want to be sure that you are focusing your diet around wholesome and natural foods. The fewer processed foods you eat, the better your digestive system will run.
Increasing your zinc intake can go a long way to improving HCL production, as can ensuring you consume enough vitamin B12 rich foods. Beef for instance is an excellent example of a meat source that’s rich in both of these nutrients, so one that you’ll want to strongly consider getting in.
Some people also find that drinking warm water or tea with their meals stimulates HCL production, while drinking ice water puts the brakes on it. If you typically drink ice water with your meals, this is a practice you may want to reconsider.
Finally, maintaining good overall digestive health by making sure that you are maintaining a healthy level of good probiotics in your digestive system will also be important for decreasing the pain you feel. Try supplementing with P3-OM to quickly bring your probiotic level up to speed.
So there you have a closer look at the two biggest issues associated with HCL – too much HCL and not enough. Keeping track of this in your own body is a critical step to making sure that your digestion processes run smoothly and that you feel your very best at all times.
Do you have any experience with low or high HCL levels? Share your story with us below.