Five years ago, I wrote a blog post called Low Stomach Acid and Autoimmune Disease, and it continues to be one of the most-read articles on this site. No wonder, because low stomach acid has huge implications for both regular folks as well as those of us with autoimmune disease. I thought I’d follow that article up with some additional information and my favorite ways you can support your digestion and combat low stomach acid gently.
You might wonder why gentle is a key concept in this article… a major realization I’ve made since both writing that article and working with clients is, that often, a more simplified and gentle approach is just as effective (and sometimes even more effective!) at increasing stomach acid and supporting digestion. Additionally, a lot of people have complex health situations or contraindications making direct or aggressive supplementation to remedy this problem a no-go (and could even turn dangerous).
If you are looking for more information about why low stomach acid is so problematic for those of us with chronic illness, read my original article, Low Stomach Acid and Autoimmune Disease. Here, I’m providing some tips for both for those looking to support optimal digestion, as well as those who need some specific focus in this area while being gentle in their approach.
#1 Focus on meal hygiene
Digestion starts in the brain… the process actually begins when you start to think about eating food, when you smell it, and when you look at it (nod to all my NTP and NTC readers… we know why this point is hammered home so much in our training!). If you are guilty of inhaling a plate of food without much thought, chewing, or sometimes even breathing (we’re all guilty here!), this tip is bound to change your digestive health for the better.
Try this: Sit down with your food and give it a look and a smell. Give mental or verbal thanks for the opportunity to have fresh ingredients on your plate and spend a moment thinking about where they came from. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Eat your food, slowly, most importantly, chewing every bite thoroughly. Extra credit: spend some time noticing the different textures and flavors on your plate. Even better, enjoy company and a conversation with someone, and/or eat your meal outside for a little boost of nature and vitamin D.
Don’t distract yourself with a book, newspaper, or most importantly a screen. And if you can avoid it, don’t eat while driving, working, or at other times when your body is in a stress state. I can’t tell you how difficult this change is for many people to make. The reality is most people struggle with it on a daily basis! Giving yourself the time, space, and thought-energy to get through your mealtimes in a relaxed and peaceful atmosphere sets your body up to actually go through the process of digestion optimally.
#2 Don’t drink excess fluids at mealtimes
If you suspect you have low stomach acid, a great way of supporting your digestive process naturally is just to avoid taking in too much fluid while eating. This fluid, whether water, another beverage, or even a brothy soup can dilute your natural juices and slow everything down.
The stomach is actually designed to withstand a high level of acidity, and that acidity is actually necessary for breaking down proteins, activating enzymes, stimulating the flow of bile, and assimilating nutrients from food (especially some important ones, like calcium, zinc, and iron). When you dilute this acid, it just increases your stomach’s need to produce more acid in order to properly digest its contents.
I want to be clear here–I’m not suggesting avoiding or reducing fluid consumption altogether, and if anything most people need to increase their fluid intake in general. My suggestion is to try to drink your liquids between meals for optimal hydration and digestion. Everyone’s digestive process is different, but I like to wait about 30-40 minutes after eating before drinking any significant quantity of fluid. This might take a little practice, but once you start to become mindful here it isn’t hard to get the hang of.
#3 Support digestion naturally
If the above two recommendations aren’t quite enough for your needs, there are a few gentle ways to support the natural acidity of your stomach.
First, herbal bitters can be an excellent way to “prime” the digestive tract for mealtime and stimulate the digestive process. They contain extracts of herbs that are, you guessed it… bitter to the taste. (Really, though!). You can’t simply take them as a capsule to get away from the flavor, because the digestive stimulation offered by the bitter herbs actually takes place in the mouth. There are many different brands of bitter products, but my favorite by far is Urban Moonshine (caution, as their formulations are not strict AIP).
Second, trying to add some acidity to the stomach can be accomplished in a couple of different ways. Lightly diluted apple cider vinegar can be taken with meals. I usually start with a teaspoon in a couple of ounces of water–not too much, or it will dilute the acid and negate the effect. A note of caution with long term use, as acidic liquids can erode tooth enamel, and for those using this approach, drinking the mixture through a straw might be safest. Similarly, fermented vegetables are acidic and support the digestive process in other ways, a win-win! I like to keep a few varieties on hand and add a scoop to most of my meals.
Lastly, another angle to explore would be to troubleshoot any root causes or imbalances causing your stomach acid production to be sub-par. Nutrient deficiencies like zinc and vitamin B1 can all play a role in low stomach acid. This might be an area to work with a practitioner, but resolving deficiencies over time might be just the thing to get your digestion back on track.
Again, why not just use HCL supplements?
Those who have worked with providers in the functional or natural medicine communities may be familiar with direct supplementation with HCL tablets. While this has been helpful for many, I believe it to be more of a “band-aid” approach with potential future issues. I recommend only using this method under the care of a qualified medical practitioner, as there can be some serious complications for those who are on blood thinners, have ulcers, or other medical conditions.
In September of 2015 I traveled to Argentina for my cousin’s wedding. Unfortunately, I got a stomach virus while traveling, which left me with a gastric ulcer after full recovery from my illness. Always something, right?
In 2011, when I was just beginning my healing journey, my digestion and stomach acid production were in complete disrepair. I had been vegan for nearly 10 years, and the nutrient deficiencies combined with a high-carb diet left me with very poor digestion. At that time, I worked with a practitioner who supervised the use of HCL supplementation for a short while until I was able to resolve my digestive issues.
When I returned from this trip a couple of years ago, it was the first time I felt my digestion had regressed significantly since my healing journey and I knew I was in need of some real support. The ulcer, however, this time made me unable to use HCL supplementation. Instead, I employed the gentle methods mentioned above to increase my stomach acid production naturally over time. It took nearly a year, but I am able to enjoy a normal, healthy digestive process once again.
The hardest of the above recommendations for me to execute in my own life is practicing good meal hygiene. Still to this day, if I have a bout of indigestion or reflux I think “Have I been giving mealtimes the thought and space they need to keep me healthy?” And usually, if I am being honest, the answer is “No” and I make a point to bring this part of my life back into balance.
What is your favorite gentle method of supporting digestion? Do you have any personal experience with the tips above?