Just imagine, you can smell your dinner cooking, and then you see it there, waiting for you to tuck in. It’s a wonderfully nutritious meal – let’s say some oily fish, with lots of lightly steamed vegetables – a grand balance of protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates. But soon after eating your stomach starts to ache: you feel all windy and start burping (or farting), experience acid reflux, feel heavy and bloated, nauseous, have to dash to the loo for a bout of diarrhoea… What do you do? Assume you’ve got an over-acidic stomach and reach for the Gaviscon or Rennies maybe? Take some Imodium? You may be surprised to learn that these symptoms may indicate low stomach acid instead (and by taking acid suppressing medication you could be adding to the problem of literally ‘indigestion’!)
Let’s rewind: you can smell your dinner cooking, and then you see it there, waiting for you to tuck in. At this point your brain should signal your salivary glands to start salivating, and your stomach to start secreting gastric juices. These chemicals (saliva, pepsinogen and hydrochloric acid or HCl) start the process of digestion off (they literally start unwinding and breaking apart the chemical bonds that hold your food together), and let your body know it’s time to release other chemicals (called digestive enzymes) further along in your system. When you eat in a rush, when you regularly take acid suppressing medication, or simply just because you’re getting older and your body doesn’t work quite so efficiently, there may be insufficient HCl to signal release of digestive enzymes in your small intestine, and this is where digestive discomfort begins.
HCl starts the process of breaking down protein in your stomach. Have you ever left some meat or fish out in a warm kitchen and noticed what happens to it? It starts to smell (gives of noxious gases), and go off. If you haven’t got enough HCl in your stomach there’s a chance the protein you eat is going to do something similar, perhaps leading to wind, pain and possibly a reflux of acid if the sphincter between your oesophagus and stomach is a bit loose!
Saliva starts to break down carbohydrates, and this process carries on in the small intestine. But HCl signals the release of those digestive enzymes in the small intestine, so if there isn’t enough HCl to make that signal happen then there’s a possibility that carbs won’t be adequately broken down and may reach the large intestine in a form that allows the bacteria there to eat them instead. And those bacteria give off all sorts of noxious gases (I’m sure you know what I mean!), causing wind (and bad smells to come out of you!), and sometimes diarrhoea too. And just as an aside – if you’ve ever noticed bits of food in your poo (sweetcorn aside!) the problem is between your mouth and your stomach. Once food leaves your stomach it shouldn’t look like food anymore, if your digestive system is working as it should be!
Another thing to bear in mind of course is that you can be eating the most nutritious diet going, but if you’re body isn’t digesting it properly you might as well save your money. To absorb those wonderful nutrients your body must first break the food down – right down to amino acids, simple sugars and fatty acids. It can’t do that without stomach acid! So if you’re eating a nutritious diet but still don’t feel great this is something to consider, particularly if you also suffer from digestive discomfort.
Before I started learning about nutrition stomach acid was my enemy. Now I take HCl supplements when I need to – my stomach is designed to withstand the acid, and I’m no longer afraid of it. Of course you should never take HCl without first consulting a qualified nutritional therapist (like me!). Some people do over produce acid, and certainly if you’ve got ulcers you need to be talking to your doctor and following her or his advice. But please don’t just assume any digestive discomfort is due to over acidity.
Efficient digestion requires adequate HCl. And adequate HCl requires at the very least that eating isn’t rushed, food is chewed properly, and enough fluid accompanies a meal (ideally a small glass of water). If you want more personalised advice about this drop me an email or give me a ring to arrange a consultation (www.purplevitality.com)