Antacids are a staple go-to for people suffering from heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach… (yea that jingle is burned in my head too). They’re found in many purses, glove boxes, desk drawers, and kitchen cupboards, but are they helping your indigestion or making it worse?
The digestive system is a unique and intricate environment that requires a specific balance of acidic and alkaline territories to digest and absorb your food properly. It has been developed to withstand attacks from many foodborne illnesses, bacteria, and viruses. It is designed to break down the most robust meats, stabilize the acidity from hot peppers and control blood sugar spikes. But what the digestive system hasn’t developed to withstand so efficiently is our modern eating habits and overall SAD (Standard North-American Diet) eating habits.
Is taking antacids becoming a ritual after eating? Do you expect indigestion and heartburn before you even begin a meal? Are you nauseous after taking supplements? Is your hair dry and brittle? Are your nails peeling and cracking? If you answered yes to any of these, you might have LOW stomach acid, and those antacids are making the problem worse.
The Sciencey Stuff
The stomach requires a certain level of acid, gastric juice or gastric acid of around pH 1.5-3.5 (battery acid ranges from 0-1 and our saliva from 5.6-7.05). Primarily containing HCl (hydrochloric acid), KCl (potassium chloride) and NaCl (sodium chloride). Your stomach acid is so powerful it can eat through a piece of wood with just a few drops! But wood chips aside, the highly acidic environment is the primary site of protein breakdown.
When stomach cells release this gastric cocktail, its presence stimulates additional protein-digesting enzymes called Pepsin. This acid unfolds and detangles protein structures (why do I think of Russ with the knot of lights in Christmas Vacation?). Enzymes are then released cutting up the protein structures into smaller amino acid segments making them easier to digest.
How is it that your stomach doesn’t eat itself with all of that acid?
Mucous and bicarbonate (alkaline fluids) are also released to protect the lining of your stomach and neutralize the food going into your duodenum (the first stop in your small intestine). Problems arise when there is not enough acid and enzymes present in the stomach to properly untangle and cleave those proteins, and they make their way to the next stop.
If a significant amount of undigested protein particles make their way into the small intestine (the site of nutrient absorption into the bloodstream) this may cause an immune reaction, inflammatory response and eventually lead to leaky gut.
The lining of your small intestine is like a window screen; lets air in and keeps bugs out. The problem is when large, poorly digested protein molecules start forcing their way through that screen and end up in your bloodstream. This attracts more fluid to the area, increasing swelling and initiating an immune response and subsequent inflammation (oh, hello bloating, gas, cramps a.k.a. indigestion). More holes lead to more particles crossing over and stronger immune responses which leads to leaky gut and eventually autoimmune disorders. If we can’t absorb and utilize protein, then areas where proteins are needed, suffer. Hair and nails, for example, are visible indicators that protein levels may be out of balance.
There is a delicate balance needed for the breakdown (acidic) and absorption (alkaline) of foods.
So, if most people have too little acid in their stomach, why are you getting heartburn or acid reflux?
The kind of ‘food’ most people are eating is not real food! It’s processed, commercialized, packaged and refined garbage. If you’re reading labels that include preservatives, flavors, enhancers or words you cannot pronounce, it is dead food.
We are living, breathing and energetic creatures in need of sustenance that is also alive, whole and rich in vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. Real food like fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds contain powerhouses of energy-rich nutrients that help to build, repair and revitalize our body. Most of these foods are also more alkaline, not acidic like the pre-packaged items, take-outs, and grocery store labyrinths consist of. Consumption of coffee, tea, pops, energy drinks and pasteurized juices are all acidic foods that are reducing your own body’s ability to digest your food properly.
But, if they’re already more acidic, shouldn’t that help the process?
No, consuming these acidic, ‘convenience foods’ reduces the presence of your body’s gastric juice, leading to fewer enzymes being secreted. Your stomach then ends up having to work harder and more forcefully to try and use the small amount of acid and enzymes released to break down your food. Another blow to this is that we are eating in such a rush that more is being jammed down our gullet that can be handled. So two things end up happening, either more food makes its way down to your small intestine that hasn’t been adequately digested yet or your stomach is so backlogged that it makes its way back up into your esophagus… cue the heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach… vicious circle! You throw back some antacids, gastric juice is neutralized, enzymes are deactivated, and protein breakdown is reduced, and undigested particles make their way into your small intestine creating issues for absorption.
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What can you do to help your body re-balance itself?
1) Eat. Real. Food.
Eating foods that have a shorter shelf/fridge life is one simple thing you can do now to ensure that you’re getting more nutrients in your diet. If it goes bad within a week or so, even better! That means it’s alive! Fruits and veggies are full of enzymes, vitamins, and minerals that have a short lifespan. Incorporate these as much as possible into your diet while they’re in season. When Fall and Winter hits, the fruit and veggie options are limited, but keep in mind the phrase “fresh is best, but eat frozen before canned.”
2) Take a good quality probiotic supplement.
H. Pylori, a bacterial infection is commonly misdiagnosed as heartburn and when treated improperly can cause a multitude of digestive problems. Probiotics help to protect against bacteria and viruses and also aids in the breakdown and digestion of food. Adding probiotic foods into your diet is highly recommended. If you’re not used to consuming them start with smaller amounts and build yourself up.
3) Reduce your consumption of dead, acidic food and beverages.
It’s a waste of calories, money and your good health.
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4) Drink water with fresh squeezed lemon/lime juice or muddled fruits.
Lemons and limes are incredibly high in antioxidants and vitamin C. They also alkalize your system, not acidify it. The squeezed juice added to water stimulates your digestive system, and helps to break down your foods more efficiently.
5) Slow your roll!
Chew your food and take some breathers. Eating too fast does not give your digestive system enough time to work efficiently and shoving as much as you can down is making the problem worse. Eating smaller amounts and chewing longer will reduce the surface area of your food, making it easier to break apart and digest.
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6) A fast remedy for heartburn is Apple Cider Vinegar.
Yes, a shot of ACV will help to neutralize the acid build up and add plenty of good probiotics to your digestive tract. Make sure to purchase unfiltered ACV with the ‘mother’ (the residue at the bottom of the ACV is called the mother and is an excellent living source of probiotics). My favorite go-to is Braggs Unfiltered Apple Cidar Vinegar.