Digestion starts even before we take a bite. It begins with sight, attention, and smell. When food is placed before us (sight), the brain sends out an alert in anticipation of a meal. With the help of the senses of both sight and smell, the taste buds kick in and begin to water. This is about the time the vagus nerve directs the stomach to release acetylcholine (a type of chemical neurotransmitter). As acetylcholine binds to G cells in the stomach (one of the major endocrine cells in the stomach that causes acid secretion) the secretion of gastrin in combination with acetylcholine and histamine, stimulates parietal cells in the gastric glands of the stomach body to start secreting hydrochloric acid (Hcl).
Treating Digestive Issues
As we grow older the stomach becomes less efficient at creating hydrochloric acid (Hcl), a factor that can result in a “lazy” esophageal sphincter—leading to reflux or indigestion. The popular go-to treatment for acid reflux is acid blocking drugs which only exacerbates an already existing issue– low Hcl. Contrary to conventional treatments, and in many cases – working to improve Hcl levels in the stomach is an important part of the process of addressing GERD and other digestive issues.
How Hydrochloric Acid aids Digestion
Hydrochloric acid contributes to protein digestion by supplying H+ which activates pepsinogen, the precursor to pepsin. Pepsinogen is secreted by chief cells in the gastric glands of the body and antrum of the stomach. Proteins are reduced to fragments of various sizes, called peptides, or amino acids. With the help of pepsin these proteins are absorbed in the small intestine. This increase in peptides and amino acids, along with distention from food, further increases Hcl secretion. Without adequate Hcl secretion, larger portions of proteins move into the small intestine and may disrupt the digestive processes resulting in indigestion, GERD or acid reflux.
Avoid over the counter treatments
A very important aspect to understanding common digestives issues and how they become chronic is knowing about the danger of long-term use of proton pump inhibitors (PPI) such as Nexium, Prilosec and others, which are among the MOST prescribed of all medications.
“The label on these drugs says not to use for more than 2 weeks,” explains Dr. Joshua Phillips, ND. “But people end up on them for years. This has a massive impact on a person’s overall health and vitality. Why? Because stomach acid is an immensely important part of the digestive system. It is crucial for the breakdown of protein, and the absorption and assimilation of minerals from our diet.”
Extended use of PPI’s come with a long list of very serious health issues like osteoporosis, immune system dysfunction, cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. For these reasons the Naturopathic and Chinese medicine approaches treat at a more causal level without compromising the digestive systems most foundational and important functions.
Getting your gut back on track
Top of the list for regaining a healthy digestive tract is eating a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while avoiding processed and sugary foods. Taking the time to slow down at mealtime will support the body’s nervous system, which in turn helps the body digest food and absorb nutrients. Learning about the role of good bacteria vs. bad bacteria will also go a long way towards correcting imbalances in the digestive system.
Getting help with gut health
When digestive issues have become chronic it may be time to seek help from a Naturopathic provider or Functional Nutritionist who can help uncover potential allergies, food sensitivities, and other intolerances that may be interfering with health. Through tests that are aimed at discovering food sensitivity and allergies your provider will be able to build a nutrition plan to support, not just digestion but overall health and happiness.
When a patient is experiencing an overload of bad bacteria a provider may recommend antimicrobial herbs to help eliminate harmful bacteria. Taking probiotics and eating a diet rich in prebiotic foods (garlic, onions, leeks, bananas, etc.) also supports a healthy gut environment. Eating a diet rich in fermented foods is another way to support good gut bacteria (kimchi, kombucha, yogurt). The last but not least important element of gut health is exercise. Exercise promotes peristalsis (movement) of the intestines which is crucial for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Just 30 minutes 3 times a week will improve digestion, relieve stress, and promote wellbeing.
Improving Hcl can be also be accomplished with herbal bitters or supplemental capsules of betaine Hcl. A provider may also offer soothing herbs to relieve symptoms associated with heartburn, gastritis or indigestion including; deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), slippery elm, and marshmallow root as well as digestive enzymes.
Widmaier EP, Raff H, Strang KT. Vander’s Human Physiology: the Mechanisms of Body Function. Boston: McGraw-Hill; 2006. Overview of Acid Secretion. Merck Manuals Professional Edition.