When most people think of stomach acid and its relationship to health, people generally think of negative things. Acid reflux, indigestion and GERD come to mind and while those are legitimate conditions caused by a acid reaching places it shouldn’t, stomach acid itself isn’t inherently bad.
Stomach acid has an unfairly bad reputation and is often thought of as something that needs to be lowered however it’s essential to digestion and our overall wellbeing. Without it, we’d have a tough time breaking down and digesting the food we eat. Here’s 5 reasons why stomach acid is a friend and not a foe.
1. Stomach acid is essential for breaking down food.
It’s a basic but an essential point to make. After chewing and swallowing, food passes down the esophagus to the stomach in rather large chunks. The low PH of stomach acid (around PH2) allows for the food to be broken down into tiny pieces, the result is a soup like substance called chyme. Chyme is essential, as now the effective surface area available for digestive enzymes has been dramatically increased. Think 1000’s of micro chunks vs 2-3 large chunks. Impaired stomach acid would leave digestion sluggish and inefficient.
2. Stomach acid aids protein digestion.
Aside from stomach acid leading to an overall acidic environment that allows food to be broken into smaller pieces, stomach acid is required to activate the protein digesting enzyme pepsin. When the stomach releases acid, it also co-releases the enzyme precursor pepsinogen where it’s then converted to the active enzyme pepsin (and the magic of protein digestion begins). Pepsinogen is only converted to pepsin if the stomach is acidic enough and so low or insufficient stomach acid would leave protein digestion at risk.
3. It protects us from harmful bacteria
A normal healthy functioning stomach has a PH of around 2, which is highly acidic. This acidic environment helps to destroy harmful bacteria and inactivate viruses that may be in the food we have eaten. While certain viruses and bacteria have adapted to survive such conditions, many have not and subsequently are destroyed in the stomach. Without stomach acid we’d be left at an increased risk of infection.
4. Stomach acid is essential for Vitamin B12 absorption
The acidic and protein digesting environment of the stomach helps to release vitamin B12 from the food we eat. Vitamin B12 in food is tightly bound to proteins and will only be released if food is effectively broken down and digested in the stomach. Vitamin B12 is essential for proper functioning of the nervous system and the formation of red blood cells.
5. It signals the rest of digestion to go ahead
When chyme leaves the stomach it enters the first part of the small intestine called the duodenum. The highly acidic chyme signals the pancreas to release bicarbonate ions and digestive enzymes which are essential for digestion in the small intestine. In essence correct stomach acid secretion allows for the further stages of digestion to go ahead properly.
Spotting low stomach acid
Low stomach acid is known as hypochlorhydria, the complete absence of stomach acid is known as ahydrochloria. Both are commonly overlooked conditions by doctors and physicians, particularly due to the unnecessarily negative attitude that surrounds stomach acid. Symptoms for low stomach acid include bloating, excessive burping, excessive fullness and nausea after meals. Low stomach acid can be restored with betaine HCL which is a natural way to increase stomach acidity and restore digestion.
Stomach acid is essential for breaking down food, digesting protein and protecting us from foreign invaders. It signals the rest of digestion to go ahead and even helps us release a crucial vitamin from food. Without proper gastric acid, we’d have a pretty tough time digesting and assimilating the food we eat.
John Stewart is a keen health and fitness enthusiast that writes on many health topics including digestion, anxiety and sleep issues. He is currently working for JG Supplements, a UK Based supplier of nutritional supplements.