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Hydrochloric Acid

A great many factors contribute to proper digestion, absorption, and utilization of the foods so needed to nourish our cells, tissues, and organs. The stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and large intestine are primarily involved in the digestive process. More subtly, the emotions, stress level, and balance within the endocrine and nervous systems also affect digestive functioning. A wide range of supplements support the digestive system. A healthy system does not need additional support. However, research shows that the natural level of hydrochloric acid (HCl) and digestive enzymes decrease as we age or if we abuse our gastrointestinal tracts and whole bodies through food excesses, chemical use, and stress. I have found that the elderly population and many younger people with digestive complaints do better with digestion-supporting nutrients. (Note that many of the special programs in Part Four suggest digestive enzymes, HCl, and other digestive aids.) I would think that most people older than 50 would have improved breakdown of foods and utilization of nutrients along with fewer gastrointestinal symptoms when supportive HCl supplements are taken with meals and additional digestive enzymes (usually pancreas extracts) are taken after eating. Occasionally, people have increased HCl secretion with acute stress; however, usually over time, chronic stress causes HCl production to decrease. The level of HCl can be measured easily, although most often an individual’s symptoms will reveal if he or she is hyperacid. In that case, inappropriate supplements of HCl would create additional discomfort.

Hydrochloric Acid

[Note: People should use discretion in taking HCl, as its intake when there is already normal or excessive stomach acid production or gastritis may increase the risk of gastric irritation or ulcer development.]

The parietal cells of the stomach produce HCl and secrete it primarily in response to ingested protein or fat. Stress also may stimulate acid output. When we eat more frequently than required by the body or overconsume fats and proteins, acid production begins to decrease. Decreased HCl production may lead to poor digestion, with symptoms such as gas, bloating, and discomfort after rich meals. An HCl supplement may improve digestion of meals containing protein and/or fat, though not for foods such as rice and vegetables, which are largely carbohydrate and thus need less HCl for digestion.

Hydrochloric acid is available primarily as betaine hydrochloride. When a 5–10 grain (1 grain = 64 mg.) tablet is taken before, during, or after meals, it should help proteins break down into peptides and amino acids and fats into triglycerides. Glutamic acid hydrochloride is used sometimes in formulas, but this amino acid is only mildly acidic and does not work as well as betaine hydrochloride. Betaine may be used alone, in supplements, or along with pepsin or other digestive agents.

The use of HCl support is part of the antiaging process in this book, provided, of course, that HCl production is low. A Heidelberg capsule, gastric pH test (which directly measures stomach pH) can be done to verify a low or high acidity; then, a supplement can be administered to see what effect it has on stomach pH. One reason that stress can cause more rapid aging is that it diminishes HCl production and weakens digestion. It is the low-grade, long-term, emotionally oriented life stress that is more the culprit here. Stress in intense worriers or high-achieving businesspersons is associated more with HCl hypersecretion and peptic ulcer disease (at least initially).

Low HCl production is associated with many problems. Iron deficiency anemia, owing to poor iron absorption, and osteoporosis, resulting in part from decreased calcium absorption, are two important problems. General allergies and, specifically, food allergies are correlated with low HCl. Poor food breakdown and the “leaky gut” syndrome are associated with food allergies (see Allergy program in Chapter 17). More than half the people with gallstones show decreased HCl secretion compared with gallstone-free patients. Diabetics have lower secretion, as do people with eczema, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, vitiligo, and tooth and periodontal disease. With low stomach acid levels, there can be an increase in bacteria, yeasts, and parasites growing in the intestines.

“But I don’t want to take this forever,” state many patients. We can correct our low stomach acid by eating a balanced diet of wholesome foods and by reducing our daily levels of stress. Niacin, vitamin B3, stimulates HCl production. This can be taken before meals, as can magnesium chloride and pyridoxal-5-phosphate (the active form of vitamin B6) to help stimulate the body’s own HCl. I have suggested drinking the juice of half a lemon squeezed in water or a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in a glass of warm water 20–30 minutes before meals with some success. Rosemary, ginger, cumin, or orange peel, used to make tea and drunk before meals, can also be helpful.

I have come to believe that the digestive tract and its function may be the single most important body component determining health and disease. Maintaining normal digestion, assimilation, and elimination is a necessity, and when these functions are faulty, we may not be aware that these dysfunctions are contributing to so many other problems. Another key digestive factor is that HCl is a stimulus to pancreatic secretions, containing the majority of enzymes that actively break down foods. The poor digestion of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates then further contributes to poor assimilation and nutritional problems. Thus, when they are needed, supplemental support of digestive enzymes may be even more important than HCl.

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Elson M. Haas MD Written by Elson M. Haas MD