Stomach acid: too much or too little?
Upper abdominal gas, experienced as burping and belching, often follows a heavy meal. In many cases, the underlying reason is an inadequate amount of hydrochloric acid (HCl) in the gastric juice secreted by the stomach walls. HCl initiates protein digestion and also neutralizes the putrefactive byproducts that result from poor food combining, for instance, when quantities of starches are eaten at the same meal as a protein food.
Starches pass through the stomach in less than an hour, whereas proteins take three to four hours to fully digest. However, if starchy foods are eaten together with protein, then the protein prevents the starches from leaving the stomach. The starches begin to ferment and putrefy, causing fullness along with bloating and belching. Examples of protein/starch combinations are meat and potatoes, cheese and bread, and fish and rice. Sound like a typical meal? Exactly. When we ingest large amounts of such poorly combined foods, as we often do during the holidays, and the stomach doesn't produce enough HCl, discomfort is sure to follow.
Most people over the age of 35 don't secrete sufficient HCl. Those who are under stress and those who suffer from a hiatal hernia, in which the stomach is forced upward through a weakened, stretched diaphragm, also have reduced HCl secretion. Individuals who have this condition can benefit from taking supplementary HCl with a meal, ideally as part of a full-spectrum digestive enzyme supplement.
But isn't it often excess acid that's the problem? Judging by the brisk sales of over-the-counter antacid medications one would surely think so. However, antacids only mask the symptoms without getting to the cause. If acid regurgitation is experienced, it is usually a reaction to too little acid in the first place. How could this be?
When protein foods stay in the stomach too long because there isn't enough acid to break them down, this prompts a backflow of bile from the duodenum into the stomach. Bile is an irritant for the stomach lining. It is highly alkaline (the opposite of acid), so the stomach tries to neutralize it by increasing HCl production. Thus, while there was not enough HCl in the first place, now there is too much, causing acid reflux and discomfort. The long-term consumption of antacids only aggravates this situation. Natural digestive support, through raw foods and supplementation of HCl and digestive enzymes, is a much better way to treat this problem.
Supplements to promote good digestion
After the food mass leaves the stomach and moves into the duodenum, it is mixed with bile and pancreatic juice, which supplies enzymes, such as protease to further break down protein; lipase to break down fats; and amylase to break down starch. If the pancreas does not produce an adequate supply of one or more digestive enzymes, complete digestion cannot take place, and the absorption of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and fats is compromised.
Many people who have stressed their pancreas by consuming a diet of cooked foods over many years suffer from some form of pancreatic insufficiency. A digestive enzyme supplement can help by supplying those substances that are not produced in sufficient quantities. A high-quality product should contain HCl; pepsin (which supports protein digestion in the stomach); pancreatin (which supplies pancreatic enzymes); and bile. Bile is produced by the liver and concentrated in the gallbladder. It emulsifies fats and prepares them for digestion. It also helps to prevent putrefaction from fermentation (due to incomplete digestion) in the intestines.
Intestinal bloating often results from insufficient bile production. Supplementary bile salts can also benefit those who have had their gallbladder removed. Vegetarians who don't like taking pancreatic enzymes derived from animals can achieve good results by taking lipase and amylase derived from plant sources. Pineapple and papaya, for instance, contain powerful proteolytic enzymes—bromelain and papain—which are available in supplement form. Some formulations combine both pancreatic and plant enzymes for optimal digestive support. The knowledgeable staff in your local health food store will be able to assist you in selecting a product that suits your specific requirements and lifestyle.
Certain herbs are also effective in relieving digestive difficulties due to overindulgence. These include ginger, fennel, peppermint, and camomile. Herbal stomach bitters, such as the popular "Swedish Bitters" formulated by Maria Treben, assist digestion by promoting stomach activity, liver function, and the flow of bile. Lactobacillus acidophilus and other probiotic substances support digestion and assimilation by promoting the presence of healthy bacteria in the intestinal tract. A fiber supplement, such as psyllium hulls, promotes regularity. Many cases of indigestion are due to lack of bulking fiber.
To help prevent digestive discomfort, it is important to eat slowly and chew foods well. By breaking food down into smaller particles, chewing helps to make more of the surface area of the food available for action by HCl and digestive enzymes. Thorough chewing also allows the enzyme ptyalin, contained in saliva, to initiate the digestion of starches. It is important to relax when eating. Digestive activity slows down significantly when worry or anxiety cause tension in the abdominal area. Exercise, sufficient sleep, and a healthy stress response can help to keep tension under control and the digestive juices flowing.
Copyright © Simone Gabbay 2010