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!