An introduction to stomach acid imbalance
Symptoms of the upper digestive system such as acid reflux, bloating and belching are extremely common. Often, we would link these to an excess of acid in the stomach. However, this might not actually be the case and problems relating to too much stomach acid may be less widespread than we think.
Nowadays, it is becoming much more readily accepted that our symptoms may actually be the result of the opposite happening – we aren’t producing enough stomach acid!
What is stomach acid and why do we need it?
Stomach acid is necessary for digestion. The parietal cells of the stomach produce hydrochloric acid, the main constituent of gastric juice. Hydrochloric acid has a very low pH and is extremely effective in breaking down the food we eat. It is particularly vital for the breakdown of protein (it activates the enzyme pepsin for the breakdown of proteins), keeping pathogenic bacteria at bay and prompting the release of digestive enzymes and bile from the pancreas and gall bladder respectively.
These processes are vital for optimal digestion and if they are hindered – problems can arise.
What are the symptoms of excess stomach acid?
Although perhaps not as common as people may think, high or excessive stomach acid is still an issue for some. Symptoms include:
- Acid reflux – acid reflux is commonly referred to as heartburn and is often the most recognisable symptom of stomach acid issues. Our stomach has a protective mucous layer to protect it from the powerful digestive agent that is hydrochloric acid. Our oesophagus doesn’t have this protective layer so if stomach acid makes contact with your oesophagus a severe burning sensation can be felt which can be very painful and be experienced across the upper chest
- Pain – extreme, burning pain is often a result of the acid reflux
- Belching – belching or burping is common as the oesophagus becomes irritated. This can even result in acidic taste in the mouth as acid travels up the oesophagus. This can also give rise to a sore throat
- Nausea – nausea occurs as a result of the acid travelling up your oesophagus when can cause us to gag or even vomit
- Recurrent acid reflux can result in gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). In GORD there is a problem with the lower oesophageal sphincter muscle; it doesn’t work properly allowing stomach acid to travel back up into the oesophagus. GORD may be exacerbated with certain dietary lifestyle choices.
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What are the symptoms of low stomach acid?
This is often a cause for confusion – having too little stomach acid can actually produce symptoms similar to those of excess stomach acid.
Some of these shared symptoms include:
- Acid reflux
- Heartburn and pain
However, there are also some likely additional symptoms to look out for which may suggest you have too little, rather than too much, stomach acid:
- Bloating – with low levels of stomach acid we may fail to break down food properly in the stomach. Bacteria throughout our digestive tract are then able to attack the partially undigested food. Fermentation occurs as a result of this and gas is produced
- Belching – belching may occur with excess gas. This is likely to be especially bad after high protein meals – for example large portions of meat, as the insufficient stomach acid struggles to break it all down properly
- Undigested food in stools – this is a result of food not being broken down properly. Food may travel the full length of the digestive tract without being broken down and utilised as a result of stomach acid failing to do its job
- Other digestive complaints – these may include flatulence, constipation or diarrhoea. These symptoms are again likely to be a result of undigested food travelling into the colon and causing problems in the gut
- Bacterial overgrowth – symptoms indicating a potential bacterial overgrowth include: fatigue, skin problems, food intolerance or brain fog. The bad bacteria in your gut can overpopulate quickly in the right conditions.
Aren't quite sure which?
There are some simple home tests thar you can carry out to help determine if your stomach acid might be too high or too low.
Click the link to find out more and get started!
If you are still in any doubt as to what might be going on, we would always recommend you pay a visit to your doctor.