Healing Begins In the Gut Pt.1
You have probably heard the quote by Socrates: "All disease begins in the gut." However, I wish to start in a positive way, thus my title 'Healing Begins In the Gut'.
This will be the first article in a series about the different aspects/functions of our gut. Knowing a few essential things about the gut can help us stay healthy, especially during demanding times, for example in the winter months or during travelling. And if we are trying to heal ANY kind of health issue we cannot avoid looking at the gut.
There are many parts to the gut but today I wish to focus on the stomach. I feel like the stomach gets very little attention and yet, it may be THE most important part of our digestion. I'd say it's the gateway.
You could argue that the mouth is the gateway. Yes, you are right - the process of digestion begins in the mouth and it's quite important how well we chew our food. We also create the digestive enzyme amylase in the mouth. So chewing each mouthful well and thinking about the food we are consuming (this encourages releasing of the digestive enzyme), will make digesting our food easier for the rest of the digestive tract.
However, the stomach is absolutely crucial for digestion - and more! Hear me out. Even if we do not chew our food that well (and most people don't!) we will not be risking our lives. But once our stomach doesn't fulfil its role properly we can set off a whole array of problems, some very serious indeed.
So let's think about the stomach as the gateway to the digestion.
When functioning optimally, the stomach acid, also called hydrochloric acid, is super powerful. The pH is very low (= extremely acidic), about 1.5 - 3.5.
I heard the analogy of a steak in battery acid. If the stomach acid is the battery acid it will dissolve the steak in no time. On the other hand, if our stomach acid is too weak it will act more like vinegar - instead of dissolving it will simply marinate it.
It's a bit confusing when we say that someone's stomach acid is too low. We mean that the pH is too high but the potency of the stomach acid is too low. When the pH goes higher the acid becomes more neutral to alkaline.
We want our blood to be lightly alkaline and the stomach acid to be very acidic.
With too much sugar (also too many carbs) in the diet, lack of sleep, stress and frequent use of antibiotics our stomach acid gets compromised.
I read about a study of 200 children with asthma from 1931. The findings were that 80% of these children suffered hypochlorhydria (= low stomach acid). Once the children increased their hydrochloric acid, the number and severity of asthma attacks went significantly down.
I am sure now you understand why I find it so very frustrating when I hear about a child with asthma (and quite often also acid reflux) who gets prescribed stomach blockers. Sometimes these help for a short while but in the long run the child always gets worse... Many of these children also suffer eczema or psoriasis, gluten or other food allergies, they don't grow properly or are constantly ill. They also tend to have leaky gut (which will be for another article). All these issues are gut related and I dare say they start with the stomach - or rather the misunderstanding of the role of the stomach.
I was one of these children - mysteriously coughing at night for months and months, having one bout of tonsillitis after another, taking antibiotics every few weeks, dealing with allergies, constipation, eczema and later acne. My breathing and lung capacity were poor and a couple of immunity experts told me that I would develop asthma. Thankfully, I didn't but I have been dealing with hay fever to this day.
You may know someone who suffers from hiatus hernia or GERD. These are conditions where the 'flap/cap' on the top of the stomach doesn't close tightly and as a result the stomach acid leaks into the oesophagus. It is a very painful and uncomfortable situation - and sadly, it gets misdiagnosed. The conventional treatment is, again, to block the stomach acid. This temporarily relieves the burning sensation but makes things worse in the long run. Why?
Because without our stomach acid working the way it's meant to, we cannot break foods down properly - thus we cannot absorb nutrients. These are namely calcium, magnesium, B12, zinc and iron. Also, without adequate potency of the hydrochloric acid we become unable to digest proteins.
Have you noticed how many people are intolerant to different proteins these days?
Yes, gluten and casein are proteins.
While lactose intolerance is commonly known, I dare say most people are not lactose but casein intolerant. Lactose is milk sugar that gets eaten by bacteria in the process of fermentation (yogurt, kefir). However, casein is the milk protein. Especially cow's milk protein has very large molecules and these are tricky to digest - impossible to digest if we lack our stomach acid's potency. So if you find it difficult to digest dairy (fermented or not), it's because of the casein.
So how come people get stomach acid leaking into the oesophagus then, when in fact they are lacking it in amount and/or potency?
It's all muscular. There is a sensor in the stomach that tells the cap to close tightly when the stomach acid is the ideal acidity, 1.5 - 3.5 pH. If the pH is off the cap won't get the impulse to shut. As always, our body is trying to tell us something but we tend to ignore it. As the body grows more depleted in those essential nutrients, especially magnesium and B12, the problem becomes more and more serious.
Interestingly enough, magnesium and B12 are usually the nutrients to help soothe asthma, as well.
Once we are unable to absorb essential nutrients and proteins, we cannot heal and rebuild our bodies, or even just keep functioning the way we are meant to. This becomes a vicious circle. As the body turns into a high alert mode (= constant/chronic stress) our autoimmunity tends to kick in - thus the psoriasis, gut lining inflammation, stomach or oesophagus ulcers and other issues.
I wrote briefly about magnesium and B12 in my article about the thyroid - have a look here: The Thyroid - Queen of Balance.
Are there any tell-tale signs of low stomach acid (other than heartburn) before we develop the more serious conditions? Yes! They are:
bloating and/or burping (straight away or a few hours after a meal)
large amounts of mucus/phlegm (especially when we wake up)
a cough that is not associated with a cold
feeling of a 'frog in the throat' or a constant sore throat
heaviness or discomfort in the stomach area (especially after a meal)
food allergies and intolerances
asthma, possibly hay fever and other environmental allergies
nutritional deficiencies despite a balanced diet and supplements
SIBO, fungal overgrowth, parasites
Our stomach acid is there (or should be) to destroy any unwanted organisms we may consume with our foods (bacteria, moulds/yeasts, parasites), otherwise we may risk getting food poisoning or a parasite.
Another common problem is SIBO - small intestine bacterial overgrowth. In other words, when the bacteria that live in the large intestine get into the small intestine. They don't have to be 'bad' as such. They can be a beneficial type of bacteria but the fact that they are proliferating in the wrong place makes them bad. In this case one of the symptoms will be a lot of bloating. The body will already be lacking certain essential nutrients and this will be aggravated further with the inability to absorb nutrients in the small intestine - because of the bacterial interference. (I will focus more on the small intestine in another article.)
There is some promising research regarding Helicobacter Pylori (H. Pylori) as well as Lyme disease. While we cannot say 100% that they are a result of low stomach acid, the people who healed or are keeping these infections in check at least, are all supporting their hydrochloric acid. It seems that no matter how strong antibiotics they take, as soon as they stop the treatment, the infection comes back. The only way to suppress the infection is by supporting the body in the long term.
In fact, I found the same with Candida overgrowth. No matter what cleanses and diets we do, once we stop, the fungal problem is back. The problem is not the diet or environment (although they can contribute to it), the problem is that the body doesn't keep on top of the yeast/fungus. I wrote more about this in my article about Candida - have a read here: Candida - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
In the recent years it became very common in the health conscious community to take digestive enzymes with meals. These are absolutely crucial for good digestion - namely to digest fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Yet, not many of us realise that our digestive enzymes depend on the right pH of the stomach acid.
Are you beginning to see the pattern now?
Yup, the stomach and its proper function is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL.
Based on what I have experienced myself and seen with other people, I dare say when we address the thyroid and the stomach, most health issues will disappear or will be greatly reduced.
How can we fix our stomach acid?
You can try drinking 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in a small amount of water just before a meal. This is helpful but may not be enough.
Taking the supplement Betaine Hydrochloride with every meal is the best option. Depending on the brand and strength, most supplements recommend 1-2 capsules. Start with one with your lunch and another one with your dinner. You can increase to 2 with each meal over the next couple of days.
You should feel good - in fact, much better after your meal. If you had a tendency to get bloated or just feel 'heavy' and sleepy after a meal, now you are feeling more alert and lighter, hopefully.
If you have ulcers or happen to feel a burning in your stomach or oesophagus after taking Betaine HCl, you will have to heal the gut lining first before you can start fixing your stomach acid.
Our body recycles the hydrochloric acid after each use. So after taking Betaine HCl for 2-3 months and feeling the benefit of it, we should be able to stop supplementation.
Just keep in mind that whenever we take a course of antibiotics or have been through a period of increased stress, we may need to support our stomach acid production again.
I mentioned the word STRESS here. I wrote a lot about stress in the thyroid article here.
Our body doesn't distinguish between physiological and emotional/mental stress. Physiological would be lack of sleep, nutritional deficiencies, injuries, infections, inflammation etc.
Our body treats ANY stress as simply stress.
Long term (= chronic) stress will downregulate all the functions in the body that are not essential for survival. Because when in stress the body is surviving, barely ticking over, it's not thriving. We said the thyroid, our queen of balance, will downregulate its function first. This will affect our digestion and, of course, the potency of our stomach acid. I have written some tips for reducing unnecessary stress (in other words, how to practise self-care) in the thyroid article. These are quite simple but potent strategies, have a read, please.
And last but not least, we need to stay mindful of our emotions and thought patterns. As we have said so many times by now, many health issues are not related to nutrition only.
The psycho-somatic cause here would be the inability to 'break down and/or digest' something - mental or emotional.
May you all thrive!