A critical part of the digestive process is the action of stomach acid and many GAPS people don’t produce enough. A diet of refined foods or too much stress will lessen natural production, which leads to poorly digested food and heartburn. How do you know if you need more stomach acid?

Valerie was a client with multiple food sensitivities who had been following the GAPS Diet on her own, off and on, for about a year and a half. She was really frustrated that she couldn’t get past Stage 2 without having reactions to the new foods. There were several issues that we worked on to help her move forward, but one thing that made a huge difference was supplementing stomach acid.

Valerie found that she was able to eat beef and lamb again, without it feeling like it sat like a rock in her stomach, and when she tried avocado and nut flour pancakes again she tolerated them with no issues. All because she now had the right level of stomach acid to properly break down her proteins, which led to the right things happening in the rest of her digestive tract.

When people think of leaky gut and food intolerances they usually focus on what’s happening in the small intestine, but I always look north to see what went wrong before that. Some of our food intolerances stem from the fact that we aren’t breaking our foods down appropriately. That starts with chewing, and then continues with acid and actions of the stomach. Enzymes and bile are triggered by the proper pH of the stomach contents, and that’s when the final steps in the breakdown of our food occur.

Proteins are primarily broken down in the stomach by the action of stomach acid. If this doesn’t happen effectively, we end up with larger chunks of food in the first part of the small intestine, and that places a bigger burden on our digestive enzymes to try to break them down enough to be properly absorbed. Most microbes are also protein, so proper stomach acid can digest food-borne pathogens and prevent food poisoning.

Low stomach acid is associated with lowered absorption of calcium, iron, folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. If you’ve had testing that showed you’re low in these nutrients, proper stomach acid may be an important piece in bringing their levels up.

I’d like to share a few signs to help you understand if you should support your stomach acid production and give you suggestions about how to do that.

Signs that you may need supplemental stomach acid:

  • Feeling like food sits like a rock in your stomach
  • Your digestion feels ‘frozen’
  • Burping as you eat, or right after you eat
  • A feeling of excessive fullness after meals
  • Prefer to skip breakfast
  • Aversion to eating meat
  • Heartburn
  • Reflux (GERD)
  • Gastroparesis
  • Diarrhea shortly after meals
  • Undigested food in your stool
  • Supplements upset your stomach
  • History of excess drinking or cigarette smoking
  • Long-term use of antacids, proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs), and H2-receptor antagonists (H2-RAs)
  • Bariatric surgery
  • Age 65 or older

Many GAPS people have an overgrowth of yeast or h. pylori in the stomach, which reduces stomach acid production and allows foods to ferment there, which generates gas. As the stomach fills with gas, you get burping and reflux. Supplementing stomach acid helps to bring down the overgrowths and improves digestion.

It’s important to stop eating when you’re about 80% full. Eating slowly will help you register that point. A simple way to slow down your eating speed is to put your utensil (or piece of food) down in between bites. Chew and swallow completely before eating that next bite. We’re often in the habit of half-chewing and taking the next bite before the last is swallowed.

Eating in a relaxed state also triggers proper digestive functioning. This may be as simple as taking 5 deep breaths before your first bite of food. That’s enough for your body to recognize that it’s safe in this moment. Avoiding scrolling, listening to the news, and chaotic eating environments will keep you there.

Avoid drinking cold or iced beverages with meals.

Stomach acid boosting options

There are a variety of ways to boost your stomach acid production and I generally recommend a combination of food supports. Drinking meat stock alone is soothing and nourishing to your stomach lining.  Certain nutrient deficiencies also contribute to low stomach acid, so correcting salt, zinc, iron, and Vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiencies are important.

  1. A squirt of herbal bitters before meals
  2. Adding a few teaspoons of raw apple cider vinegar to your water
  3. Adding a squeeze and a slice of lemon to your water
  4. Drinking cabbage juice, fermented cabbage juice, sauerkraut juice, or having a small helping of fresh cabbage at the beginning of each meal, or 10-15 minutes before your meal
  5. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) supplementation (NOTE: don’t take if you’re on corticosteroids, regularly using NSAIDS or other pain relievers, or other medications that damage the lining of the stomach, or have been diagnosed with a peptic ulcer disease)

Cabbage has a great ability to stimulate stomach acid production and works well in both children and adults, but you need to eat it with every meal. So, even if you decide to take stomach acid supplements, you can still eat cabbage whenever you can.

If you opt for hydrochloric acid supplements there are many types and doses on the market, and you’ll look for the ingredients Betaine HCl and Pepsin. Pepsin is a protein digesting enzyme. A product that only includes “betaine” is something different – it must be betaine HCl.

Betaine HCl should ideally be supplemented after just a few bites of your meal. However, if you forget to take them at the beginning, you can take them at the end of the meal, or even after the meal. For people with low stomach acid production who always feel full, and never feel truly hungry, it can be beneficial to take Betaine HCl between meals as well, in order to completely empty the stomach for the next meal.

Dr. Natasha recommends that an adult start with 1 capsule at a time and see if that helps. If it’s not enough, then gradually increase the dose to your individual level, which can be up to 3,000mg per meal (capsule amounts vary, so check the label). If you’re routinely taking 3,000mg per meal you need to look at the co-factors like zinc, thiamine (Vitamin B1), and unrefined salt.

For children, any of the food supports listed above are the best place to start. If those don’t help enough, and your child is still suffering with reflux and excessive burping, Dr. Natasha recommends supplementing with Betaine HCl without pepsin. Start with a pinch of the powder mixed with the first mouthfuls of food, and gradually increase the amount to a third or a half a capsule per meal. Dr. Natasha generally doesn’t recommend HCl & Pepsin for children who can’t swallow capsules because it tastes very acidic and can produce burning in the throat and esophagus. With older children who can swallow capsules, this isn’t a problem; they can take one capsule of HCl & Pepsin at the beginning of the meal or when their stomach is full of food and isn’t coping well with it. However, it’s generally safer to use Betaine HCl for children rather than HCl & Pepsin.

When Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride says that most people who follow the GAPS Diet don’t need stomach acid supplements, or other digestive boosters, people really take this to heart. I actually come across more people, like Valerie, who benefit from these supplements than people who don’t. This might be because my clients tend to be more complicated GAPS cases. If you see yourself in this article, don’t be afraid to try supplements to boost your digestion and speed up your ability to heal.

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