As we age, we may encounter more digestive problems. This often has to do with one thing: less digestive power.
As we age, if we could pinpoint one thing that leads to digestive problems, what would it be? Some would say not eating enough, or eating too much of the wrong foods. Others might worry about getting enough water, or increasing incidences of indigestion.
But perhaps the most common thing that goes wrong with our digestion as we age—and the root of many digestive problems—is a condition known as hypochlorhydria. This is very simply the underproduction of hydrochloric acid, or stomach acid.
Hypochlorhydria is quite common and becomes more prevalent with age. It occurs in about 15 percent of the population. Among people who are worried enough about symptoms to see a doctor, 50 percent are diagnosed with it. By age 40, 40 percent of the population is affected, and by age 60, 50 percent. A person over age 40 who visits a doctor’s office has about a 90 percent probability of having hypochlorhydria.
HCL and what it does
If the stomach were not protected by mucus, hydrochloric acid (HCL) would burn the stomach lining. This powerful acid protects us from harmful bacteria—what we may ingest with foods is fried by this strong acid. HCL also helps keep the three pounds of bacteria found in the colon from moving up into the small intestine. If this happens, “bad” bacteria and yeast can establish a foothold in the intestine, resulting in less than optimum absorption of nutrients and inflamed intestines.
HCL is paramount in our digestive process. It begins the digestion of protein and stimulates the pancreas to produce digestive enzymes and bile. Without enough of these two substances, we cannot adequately digest or absorb carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. When we don’t digest foods well, there may be three results:
1) We don’t get the nutrition we need.
2) Badly digested foods continue through the digestive tract. Some of the larger molecules flow through the intestine into the bloodstream. (The inflamed intestines noted above make this easier.) These larger molecules are seen as invaders by the immune system and are attacked. The result is food allergies. It is estimated that 80 percent of patients with food allergies suffer from some degree of impaired hydrochloric acid secretion in the stomach.
3) Foods linger for much longer than they should in the digestive system, resulting in an overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria in the small intestine and colon. When these bad bacteria begin to outnumber the good bacteria, a condition known as dysbiosis exists. According to Elizabeth Lipski, M.S., C.C.N., in her book, Digestive Wellness, dysbiosis may result in such diverse conditions as arthritis, autoimmune disease, vitamin B12 deficiency, chronic fatigue syndrome, eczema, food allergies and food sensitivities, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
In other words, a shortage of HCL can have dire consequences.
What to do
It seems simple to overcome—simply get more HCL. Unfortunately, one of the difficulties associated with hypochlorhydria is that it is often misdiagnosed as the opposite—as having too much stomach acid. This is because both conditions share the same symptoms—bloating, belching, burning, flatulence, indigestion, and gassiness—and, perhaps, because there is an easy “remedy” for too much stomach acid: antacids. However, antacids can be a large part of the problem.
Antacids buffer the stomach from the HCL, which also blocks it from doing its part in the digestive process. Thus, someone who has too little HCL and who takes antacids will have even less HCL available to do its digestive job. Antacids also change the stomach’s pH, which can adversely affect the “good” bacteria. Taking antacids, then, can make the problem of hypochlorhydria even worse.
As mentioned, hypochlorhydria can be difficult to diagnose, and many health practitioners treat this condition as too much stomach acid. The best way to pinpoint hypochlorhydria is to ask your health practitioner for a Heidelberg test. This test accurately measures how much HCL the stomach is producing, and if your problem is not hypochlorhydria, this test will help your health practitioner accurately diagnose your problem.
When looking for ways to support HCL, the first and simplest solution is to take something that will help you digest foods well. Doing so will ensure that you get the nutrition you need and lessen the possibility of foods rotting in your intestines, leading to the onset of dysbiosis.
An easy way to aid digestion is to take digestive enzymes. These help the enzymes created naturally by the pancreas; thus, foods are digested more quickly and more completely. When choosing a digestive enzyme, choose one that contains a wide spectrum of enzymes. This is important because the macronutrients found in foods are “enzyme-specific”—a specific enzyme works on a specific macronutrient. For example, any formula you take should include lipase to digest fats, protease to digest protein, and amylase to digest carbohydrates. It would also do well to include cellulase to digest fiber, sucrase to digest white sugar, and maltase to digest malt sugar.
You may also try a home remedy to supplement HCL. Mix one teaspoon of vinegar with water and drink this with each meal. You may gradually increase the vinegar up to 10 teaspoons in water. If you experience burning, immediately neutralize it with a glass of milk or a teaspoon of baking soda in water.
As always, if hypochlorhydria problems persist, see a health practitioner.
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