Shortness of breath, chronic fatigue, palpitations and bruising at the touch of a leg was common place for me many years ago. I was persistently anaemic and yet took iron supplements daily. I ate as much spinach as I could get into my diet, I was making green smoothies, eating red meat and yet....was still anaemic.
How was it possible that, despite consuming and supplementing so much iron, I was still so low in iron?!
Millions of people take supplements on a daily basis, however, how much of these nutrients are we actually absorbing? As I leant all of those years ago, it's not what we're consuming, but what we're absorbing that matters!
Absorption starts in the stomach. The stomach is designed to be a highly acidic environment. At optimum levels, it has a pH of between pH1-3. This is very (very!) acidic. The stomach is a wonderfully designed environment with a thick mucous layer to protect the stomach lining.
Why do we need such an acidic environment?
Firstly, is it’s our body’s first line of defence. It can kill invading pathogens, microbes or bacteria that enters via our mouth. A less acidic stomach leaves us vulnerable to invasion by foreign bacteria and gastrointestinal infections.
Secondly, we need a very acidic stomach to breakdown protein. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. These amino acids are incredibly important for the body. They are the raw materials we need to make all proteins, from our muscle tissue, skin and bones to our happy hormones. Without adequate amino acids we can develop poor skin healing, hair thinning, weak and brittle nails, low mood, depression even osteoporosis. The stomach acidity needs to be acid enough to break down protein into its constituent amino acids.
Thirdly an acidic environment is needed to absorb key vitamins and minerals. Zinc, B12 and iron all require an acidic environment in order to be effectively absorbed.
Therein lay my problem. Not only was I low in zinc (due to years of being on the Pill), but I was also chronically stressed, breastfeeding a young baby and caring for a toddler, existing on little sleep and nutritionally depleted, all things that I learnt were contributing to my low stomach acidity.
So, my poor gut acidity was not acidic enough to absorb the iron and B12 that I so desperately needed. I was popping iron pills and sautéing spinach to no avail…my gut was closed for business. There was no way it was going to absorb iron in that non-acidic environment.
There are a number of factors that reduce our stomach acidity.
· Age- over the age of forty we naturally produce less stomach acid (hydrochloric acid)
· Thyroid problems
· Nutritional deficiencies- namely zinc and B-12
As you can see, these acid-suppressing circumstances are all pretty common to modern life. I know very few individuals who manage to sail through the week without experiencing some form of stress! This, coupled with poor eating and lifestyle habits is likely why we are seeing so many digestive issues in younger individuals now. Low stomach acidity can present in all manner of ways. Mine was anaemia. For others it could be acid reflux or heartburn. Yes, heartburn is a sign of low stomach acidity!
Feel the burn
Heartburn. This much-misunderstood condition is perpetuated by the nine billion dollar acid suppressing industry. The science is well understood. As we age, we produce LESS stomach acidity, not more. This is why after we eat, our food can sit there uncomfortably like a food baby, it is not subject to the highly acidic environment that can see a razor blade dissolve in seconds. If we had too much acid being produced, then surely that food baby would dissolve in ultra-quick time?! We would be Olympic digesters; nothing would sit in our gut for more than a second before being dissolved in our super-acid stomachs.
The reality is however very different.
The stomach really is quite remarkable, enclosing an environment unique to this organ. Rightly so, that environment is an acidic one designed for killing invaders, breaking down food and absorbing nutrients. The stomach protects itself from becoming damaged from this acidic environment by producing a protective mucus layer. It is the delicate balance of this mucus production and stomach acid that is thought to become disrupted when a stomach ulcer is formed.
Stomach ulcers are caused through increased stress, smoking, bacterial infection (H. Pylori) and NSAID (anti inflammatories).
The contents of the stomachs acidic environment are kept in place by a ring of muscle (oesophageal sphincter) at the top of the stomach and base of the oesophagus (the muscular tube that carries food to the stomach). This sphincter is triggered to stay closed by the acidity of the stomach. When the stomach becomes less acidic, the sphincter can open, allowing the stomach acid to enter the oesophagus. The oesophagus has no protective mucosal layer and so this acidity is felt as a burning sensation.
This burning is the pain experienced as heartburn or acid reflux. The way most individuals alleviate the symptoms of acid reflux is to take an antacid. This neutralises what little acid may be remaining from already low stomach acidity, alleviating symptoms. The same is true of pharmaceutical interventions such as proton pump inhibitors. They stop your stomach producing acid by inhibiting the function of the acid pumps. Some of the common side effects of proton pump inhibitors, as described on the packaging are increased risk osteoporosis-related fractures, clostridium difficile related diarrhoea (a gut infection), nausea, vomiting, flatulence and headaches.
So taking acid suppressants may rid you of the symptoms for heartburn. However, you can be left with a whole host of secondary problems because, guess what, your body needs that acid to digest, absorb and defend itself!
Other symptoms of a poor functioning digestive system are eggy smelling flatulence. Yes, those eggy smells are the result of protein becoming putrefied in the gut. Putrefaction happens when protein cannot be broken down due to poor digestion and low stomach acidity and so instead gut bacteria convert the protein into toxic substances as described by Dr. Stephen Gray in Longevity Blueprint. “It often smells like sulphur. If you aren’t chewing well, are deficient in enzymes or stomach acidity, putrefaction of protein occurs. Carbohydrates can also ferment, converting sugars to methane gas, leaving a foul smell with your bowel movement.”
Symptoms of low stomach acidity:
· Acid reflux
· Excess fullness after eating
· Persistent cough or irritation in the throat
· Gas (excessively windy)
· Anaemia (due to poor iron and B12 absorption)
· Poor protein digestion which leads to:
Hair thinning and hair loss
Weak, brittle nails
Vertical ridges on nails
Skin problems- rosacea
Low bone density
Poor B12 absorption which leads to:
Numbness and tingling
Improving your stomach acidity
Fixing stomach acidity can have a huge impact on our overall health. It can enhance your nutrient absorption and the host of symptoms related to the low levels of nutrients your body is lacking. How can we improve the acidity in our stomach, stopping the heartburn and allowing the stomach to function in the correct way again?
Eating slowly stimulates the production of gastric juices in preparation for digestion. Chew your food! We are all in such a hurry, all the time. Make time to enjoy your food, savour it and chew 20-30 times. My grandmother used to tell me to chew 100 times…whilst there was wisdom in her advice, 100 times isn’t particularly practical, I think I’d still be eating lunch at dinnertime! 20-30 times works though!
Avoid drinking water during meal times
Avoid drinking water 40 minutes either side of eating. This will only serve to dilute your gastric juices.
There are many reasons why fermented foods are frankly fabulous. Many of which we will cover shortly, however in terms of increasing stomach acidity, foods like sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) are swimming in lactic acid, perfect for increasing stomach acidity and improving digestion.
Add some fresh raw veggies and salad onto your lunch plate. Raw foods contain high levels of enzymes, ideal for breaking down food, especially when doused in an acidic vinaigrette dressing packed with goodness (see raw slaw recipes)
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is a fermented drink that is high in acetic acid. This helps to re-acidify the stomach as well as introducing a host of good gut bacteria. Drinking20ml of apple cider vinegar before eating not only acidifies the stomach but also reduces the blood glucose spike of meals, reducing the need for insulin, therefore encouraging fat-burning.
A raw, unpasteurised apple cider vinegar with the Mother is an ideal store cupboard essential- I LOVE Willy’s apple cider vinegar. It is bio organic, that means the 300-year old orchard hasn’t been touched by modern farming methods, working with natures natural cycles provides optimally high nutrients and 48 varieties of apple trees. It has been reported as being one of the oldest orchards in the UK. It also tastes delicious…and I’ve tried a lot of apple cider vinegars! It introduces live bacteria to your gut as well as improving acidity.
As you will learn throughout this book, ACV has multiple health benefits!
For stomach ulcers
Cabbage juice can be very beneficial for stomach ulcers. If sauerkraut is too acid, you can try juicing cabbages as an alternative or simply eating more cabbage. The chlorophyll in green leafy vegetables has also been reported to aid in stomach ulcer healing as does liquorish root (not the sweets!)and zinc carnosine.
Betaine is a natural compound found in beets and spinach. Betaine HCL is a combination of betaine and HCL (hydrochloricacid). Betaine HCL is great for preventing bad bacteria flourishing by creating more acidity in the stomach. It activates enzymes that breaks down proteins and the increased acidity can help kill pathogens. It is ideal in acidifying the stomach and helping to combat acid reflux. It can be taken before a meal, however it can take a while to build up because it’s not very acidic, it’s a natural product. Antibiotics and antacids can affect gut acidity levels and so betaine HCL can be the necessary natural extra kick needed to increase stomach acidity after a course of antibiotics or antacids. Once acidity is built up, you can come off betaine HCL, it is not necessary as a long-term addition, not like AVC which has benefits from taking daily for the long term!
My daily supplements are now absorbed by my stomach due to the increased acidic environment. As well as my daily fermented foods and Apple Cider Vinegar, I take Wiley's Bold Vision, which not only protects my vision from the damaging light form my (over!) laptop use, but improves my gut acidity through increasing my zinc levels. I also take Wiley's Finest Peak EPA fish oils, Hunter & Gather Liver supplements (for Vitamin A, B12 and trace minerals) and Potassium Magnesium citrate by Viridian.
Increasing your stomach acidity can increase your nutrient absorption and the habitat of the gut microbiome...which is another subject entirely!