For years, I was convinced my stomach hated me. Much like most people in my family (my parents bought the jumbo size of antacids monthly), I thought I had excess stomach acid, which led to the usual burning sensation after eating, bloating and general discomfort. I began buying my own antacids, only to find popping them made the problem worse.
Coupled with post-meal irritation, my energy levels would tank right after eating and remain that way for hours. Every time I mustered up the enthusiasm to exercise, a meal or snack would wipe out that fresh resolve, leaving me with even more low-level, constant fatigue.
Although I spoke with a physician about the issue, it led to a prescription for stronger antacids, with an equally strong bad reaction. I tried switching what I ate, cutting out gluten, dairy, sugar and anything that seemed inflammatory, which helped slightly but not enough to feel like I was solving the problem. I began to joke, half-heartedly, that I felt like I was allergic to food.
Then, I saw a nutritional therapist, who suggested my problem might be the opposite of what I’d suspected. I was diagnosed with low stomach acid — a condition that’s surprisingly common, especially as you age — which meant the antacids were making it worse, and my low energy was being caused by poor nutrient absorption.
After just a few days of taking digestive enzymes, a remedy used to compensate for low stomach acid production, it felt like I had a whole new stomach — and, finally, a solution to my issues. What I’d been experiencing is common for those with low stomach acid, says naturopathic doctor Natasha Turner, author of “The Hormone Diet.”
“Many people associate gastric distress with an excess of stomach acid, but low stomach acid is more likely to be the surprising cause behind your digestive issues,” she notes, adding that it’s associated with a variety of conditions from constipation and eczema to celiac disease and asthma.
Here are some common symptoms that might tip you off that low stomach acid could be causing problems:
COMMON SYMPTOMS OF LOW STOMACH ACID
Hydrochloric acid is secreted by your gastric system so you can break down food and prevent bacterial issues in the digestive tract. When you have a lower amount than you need, it’s called hypochlorhydria, a condition that tends to be more pronounced as you get older.
Without enough of this acid working in your stomach, the digestion process can be affected, which leads to feeling bloated or nauseated during or just after meals. You could also feel heartburn or indigestion, which is why many people, including myself, pop an antacid.
Another clue you’re dealing with the issue? Simply put, take a look at what you’re leaving behind in the toilet. With low stomach acid, you won’t break down foods as effectively and this can cause a ripple effect as it passes through your digestive tract.
That can lead to tiny bits of undigested food in your fecal matter. Although some foods don’t break down much anyway — looking at you, corn — others should be fully digested by the time they’re turned into waste.
If you’re able to identify what you ate recently based on a glance into your toilet bowl, you may have a low stomach acid issue, which means you may not be absorbing the nutrients in those foods fully. That can lead to fatigue, as well as vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
LOW OR HIGH ACID
Of course, too much stomach acid can also be a major problem, and is more common than low stomach acid, especially with a standard American diet that includes fried foods, sugar and other inflammatory choices, according to Dr. Ashkan Farhadi, gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California.
When this leads to weight gain, acid problems can worsen.
“When you increase abdominal fat, it creates pressure and can also change the angle of the stomach and esophagus,” he says. “When that happens, your stomach acid has more of a tendency to reflux and cause problems.”
Losing weight, especially in the belly area, can be helpful. So can taking over-the-counter or prescription antacids for short-term relief. But, he notes, if these seem to be making the symptoms worse, then stop taking them, since low stomach acid could be the culprit.
REMEDIES TO CONSIDER
There’s no reliable test for low or high stomach acid beyond tracking symptoms, Dr. Farhadi adds. That’s why your reaction to antacids is such a clue about which you might be facing.
If you feel low stomach acid is the problem, it can be helpful to tweak your diet in several ways, including significantly lowering sugar intake, eating slower and more mindfully, adding zinc, taking a shot of apple cider vinegar and water before meals and considering digestive enzymes as a supplement.
Also, lowering stress and determining whether you have food sensitivities or allergies can also be useful.
Once I started putting strategies like these into place, my digestion issues cleared up beautifully.