Got Acid? Maybe You Don’t!

“Acid indigestion” can often be a symptom of lack of hydrochloric acid, which is needed to properly digest food.

Antacids and PPIs a Booming Business
U.S. sales of over-the-counter antacids and prescriptions for proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) run into the billions annually. But the real problem may be too little acid, not too much. And if you’re making too little acid, these pharmaceuticals not only disrupt your digestion, your body in its wisdom may actually “override” them and make more acid so that you can digest your food.

Lack of HCl
When we don’t have enough hydrochloric (HCl) acid to break down our food, pressure builds in the stomach, which can push against the valve that leads from the esophagus. With enough pressure, gases escape back into the esophagus, which lacks protection and we feel “heartburn.” HCl not only helps break down our food; it also knocks out pathogens that ride along with our food. Note that HCl production diminishes as we age.

Better with Bitters!
It’s not surprising that Americans offer a great market for the makers of over-the-counter antacids and proton-pump inhibitors. We tend to crave salt and sugar, while neglecting the other range of tastes humans evolved with: sour and especially bitter. But “bitter” may be your best friend when it comes to creating good digestion. The taste of bitter stimulates production of bile and gets gastric juices flowing, so that you’re ready to digest the food that’s coming.

We have many ways of incorporating the bitter taste into our lives. An herbal tincture of bitters may be the simplest. Here in the States, a typical bitters blend may include the roots of dandelion, burdock, yellow dock and chamomile combined with warming carminatives, such as ginger, fennel, and cardamom. Or, if you prefer, taking a cup of chamomile tea—if you are not allergic to plants in the Aster family—20 minutes before a meal can help. Likewise, eating bitters can be a lovely experience. You can incorporate dandelion leaf into salads, soups and stir-fries; make liberal use of arugula; cook radicchio or use it in a salad; and speaking of salad, generally, loose-leaf types and Romaine provide some bitterness, too.

Is It Too High or Too Low?
This is not to say there aren’t folks who produce too much acid. The trick is telling the difference. Too much? The empty stomach feels hollow; there’s less pain in the GI tract after eating; a sensation of ravenous hunger, even right after eating; and spicy foods and bitters or bitter foods worsen the pain while bland foods make it feel better.

Too little acid? Pain worsens right after eating and feelings of fullness or discomfort may last for an hour or more—the “I swallowed a brick” sensation. These symptoms go away with the use of fermented foods such as sauerkraut or kimchi or the addition of bitters.

Different Ways to Address
Herbs are stellar when it comes to addressing digestive issues, especially too-high and too-little acid. Although different plant medicines can be used for each condition, often there is some overlap. The best thing is that for most people, it’s easy to make your own remedies right at home—and these generally cost of fraction of what folks pay for OTC and prescription meds AND won’t create “side” effects that can detract from your health over the long run.

Whether you make too much or too little acid or just enough, you can benefit from avoiding processed foods, refined carbs, too-cold foods and beverages, and fad diets and shift more to eating like your ancestors ate: whole foods, properly prepared.

Have a digestive concern? I can probably help. Call me, Leigh Glenn, herbalist and herbal educator, at 410/757.4070 or e-mail and let’s set a time to talk.

This article is for informational and educational purposes only. Nothing here is intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure acid-related digestive issues. All people are different, and their unique health issues should be addressed by qualified health practitioners.

© 2013 Leigh Glenn

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