Digestion 101: A North to South Process
As we continue more south in digestion, after the brain and the mouth, next up we have the stomach. Before we get started, I wanted to remind you that you will constantly hear me reiterate as we go through this step-by-step process to “always look north” and I want you to truly understand what this means, exactly. I am referring to the fact that often times dysfunction that presents itself from further down the line, is actually due to a malfunction more north. For example, as you will read about in this second post and as we talked about briefly in the first, (the brain and the mouth), if you are eating in a stressful state and your body doesn’t make the necessary switch to that parasympathetic mode (rest and digest), then before your stomach ever had a chance to function properly, the brain basically threw it under the bus. So, while the symptoms may present themselves in the stomach (or even further south) it may not make sense to supplement, treat or approach the symptoms specifically until we instead move more north to investigate if these malfunctions are treatable with just some simple lifestyle and mindset shifts.
This is not at all to say that all digestive dysfunction starts in the brain, that would make my job and my own healthy journey so much simpler. In fact, there are many reasons why dysfunction can exist, as you will see, but beginning the investigative process at the start, way up north, allows us to rule out the possible, more simple resolutions before we move deeper and into more challenging treatments.
How it’s Supposed to Work
After we chew our food, it turns into what we call a “bolus”. The bolus passes through the esophagus and the cardiac valve (the lower esophageal sphincter) and the bolus then enters our stomach, At this stage gastric juices are released. I like to think of the stomach as a blender. Mucous, pepsin and hydrochloric acid are all released for the “churning and burning” stage of digestion. Both mechanical and chemical breakdown happens at this stage.
The hydrochloric acid (HCl) being the most important of these gastric juices as it creates an acidic environment that disenfects the food and aids in the breakdown. Despite popular belief the stomach is absolutely meant to be acidic. In a healthy individual the pH of the stomach during digestion should drop to 1.5 to 3. We have a thick mucosal layer in our stomach, that acts as a barrier that protects the cells from the acid.
- Baths the stomach
- Disinfects the stomach
- Kills bacteria and parasites present in our food
- Activates pepsin, so we can digest proteins
- Stimulates gastrin to be released into the bloodstream
- Breaks down proteins
After the stomach churns the bolus and mixes it with gastric juices, both hydrochloric acid and pepsin are responsible for protein digestion, breaking our proteins down into smaller chain amino acids, the food breaks down even further into a paste called chyme (very acidic) and the chyme is released into the upper part of small intestine (duodenum) through the pyloric valve which opens south and we move further down in digestion.
When we get that pH drop, and more heavy duty proteins are present, pepsin is activated for deeper protein digestion. Our stomach is intelligent enough to get highly acidic and release the pepsin to break the protein down further into amino acids. Without deep proteins, pepsin isn’t present, as this would actually breakdown the stomach, as it is muscle and protein on it’s own. This is the perfect example of how smart and calculated every step of this process is.
What Can Go Wrong
1) Lack of Hydrochloric Acid Production.
The pH of the stomach during digestion should be between 1.5 – 3 for optimal digestion.
This lack of HCl can come from so very many factors, the most common including stress, excess carbohydrate consumption, nutrient deficiencies, allergies, overuse of antacids and excess alcohol consumption. These can all inhibit HCl production.
A lack of HCl means our first line of defense against pathogenic microorganisms is gone. What does this mean exactly?
- Yeast, prions, bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc…these are actually little proteins.
- When the pH is correct in the stomach, pepsin digests these microorganisms…they become food.
- When the pH is not correct, an environment is created in which these organisms thrive, in some cases multiply and definitely raise havoc in the GI tract.
2) People Experience Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
- If there is not enough acid in the stomach, foods will not get properly broken down (carbs ferment, fats rancidify, proteins putrefy).
- These maldigested foods cause a reflux, or backward flow, back up into the esophagus.
- The esophagus is not made for the acidic foods from the stomach, so it burns.
Let’s take a small break here for a moment, to address a question that you are all wondering I am sure…
If the REAL problem is that too little acid produced in the stomach, why do antacids (drugs used to lower acidity, raising the pH levels) actually seem to relieve the symptoms?
Antacids and acid blockers decrease the acidity in the stomach. Low tech easy-to-find everyday versions such as Tums and Rolaids also alkalinize the stomach. More powerful versions such as Prilosec and Zantac will quite literally fully shut down the stomach’s HCl production mechanisms. All of these do in fact do what they claim and they raise the pH of the chyme to neutral, so it doesn’t burn the esophagus. So, while it may seem that it is doing it’s job, it’s a mask, a bandaid for a symptom of a larger problem. Now the chyme is far too alkaline for the stomach and as we discussed above, this means that the rest of the digestive system cannot function appropriately. And in fact we are doing very little to actually affect the main problem causing the symptoms in the first place, which is actually TOO little acid.
3) The Pyloric Sphincter Does Not Want to Release Chyme into the Duodenum:
If the chyme is too alkaline, due to the lack of HCl (whether from stress, antacid consumption or any of the other factors) the proper signals are not received to trigger the pyloric valve to open and the chyme will stay longer in the stomach than it should, rather then moving into the upper GI, as it should. It’s like those unwanted house guests, that just don’t seem to ever wanna leave, things just go very bad from there. While hanging out in the stomach, the chyme will begins to degenerate. Carbohydrates will ferment, proteins will putrefy, and fats become rancid. Putrefaction, for example, produces organic acids that hurt the mucosal lining of the stomach, allowing microorganism such as h-pylori to exist.
What You Can Do
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, before you approach JUST the stomach, it’s so important to always start north (see the first post on the brain and the mouth for a more in depth discussion of this) just as we talked about in that first post, when the brain isn’t able to make the switch of the ANS (autonomic nervous system) into parasympathetic mode, this will not send the appropriate signals to the mouth to release the appropriate enzymes to begin breaking down the starches in our food, but also the stomach will not receive the signal to ignite the digestive processes which are necessary for the chemical activities and our stomach will be unable to break down our foods appropriately. On the same hand, even if we are in a relaxed state, if we are not chewing our food properly, we are putting much larger of a burden on our stomach, then necessary. Large undigested particals enter the stomach and even with the proper enzymes, HCl levels, and mucous, this is a larger job that what the stomach can handle and it causes undo stress.
So first and foremost, take the tips we discussed in part 1, eat in a stress-free, relaxed environment, chew your food, take deep breaths, eat with gratitude and mindfulness, set your fork down in between bites, etc. and you may notice even with just these simple shifts, huge transformations in your digestion.
Be Mindful of Inhibiting HCl Production
I suggest removing anything that could inhibit acid production in the stomach. The first and most simple, remove beverages from meal time. If your hydrochloric acid production is already low (or really, even if it isn’t compromised) consuming even water just before, while eating and immediately after meal time, will dilute that concentration of hydrochloric acid and pepsin, which again will inhibit our ability to properly break down our food. Most importantly NEVER consume alkaline water with a meal. While this trendy enhanced water product certainly has it’s place, it should never be at meal time. If you think about the process we spoke about above and then think about consuming a highly alkaline beverage, you are willing consume something that stunts these very important processes of the HCl production and you are simply stunting the proper function of the entire system. Of course, if you ar taking antacids, acid blockers, etc – you may want to reconsider this. Obviously if under the care of a physician, never take yourself off a prescribed prescription without first discussing this with your doctor.
A great book to read that will really educate you on this epidemic level deficiency and the harm that these antacids are doing, I cannot recommend this book enough: Why Stomach Acid is Good For You.
Hydrochloric Acid Supplementation
If you have investigated the malfunction and the mechanisms of your digestion, looked north made some lifestyle changes, removed water from meal time, weened yourself from the antacids and you still feel that your stomach isn’t properly working, you may want to consider a combo HCl and pepsin supplementation. It is very important to note however, that there is no-one-size-fits-all approach to dosing with this supplement, as this has to be based on highly individualistic factors. Working with your MD, naturopathic doctor, nutritionist, nutritional therapist, holistic health coach, etc, they should be able to provide you with a simple method for determining the correct dosing, which will also shift and change as you heal your body’s ability to produce the proper levels on HCl on it’s own. You also need less with meals that contain less protein.
Please note, while I do think that supplementation can have it’s place in a healing protocol, I do highly suggest that you don’t skip ahead and that you first take on the simple, free adjustments to your eating. Mindful eating practices can have a far larger effect that you can ever imagine and these are very simple changes that can have very lasting results.
Other Ways to Stimulate HCl Production
Warm lemon water, apple cider vinegar and digestive bitters can also help to boost hydrochloric acid in your stomach as well as stimulating the digestive system to produce digestive enzymes and secrete bile which helps you digest your fats (we’ll get to that in upcoming posts).
Warm Lemon Water:
At least 15 to 30 minutes ahead of a meal, slowly sip a mug of warm lemon water. This will stimulate the production of gastric juices. Use the juice of half of an organic lemon, in warm, but not hot, filtered water.
Apple Cider Vinegar:
Try one tablespoon right before a meal. If that is too harsh for you, you can also make a digestive tonic, with 1 teaspoon raw apple cider vinegar in ¼ to ½ cup warm water. Be sure to use real, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar.
Bitter flavors stimulate from the moment they hit our tongue, increasing the production of saliva and salivary amylase, it also triggers the stomach acid and enzymes, bile, hormones, etc. If the bitter taste is especially rare in your diet, your digestion will fire up with just a very small amount of the bitters. Take about ¼ teaspoon of bitters about 15 minutes before your meal. Make sure to use real bitters and not cocktail bitters, that may contain artificial flavors, preservatives, corn syrup, sweeteners or other junk. I recently discovered and love Urban Moonshine brand, made with with organic, gluten-free alcohol, and no GMOs- and they taste great.
NOTE: When traveling I suggest bringing along with an HCL supplement, digestive enzymes and a probiotic. These will help with arming your stomach to be prepared to deal with any unusual pathogens. This is especially important with international travel. We are already in a less than ideal state for digestion, we are out of control of our foods, stressed, etc. Take your support.
Digestion 101: A North to South Process
This post is for educational purposes only. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please always seek the advice of your holistic practitioner for contraindications with other medications. I am not able to recommend or prescribe for any medical conditions, without one-on-one consultation.