Digestive problems are one of the most common conditions I see in my patients. And they are usually one of the easiest to “fix”. Now I want to discuss one possible reason that people can have faulty digestion, related to hydrochloric acid (HCl).
The chemical aspect of digestion begins in the mouth with salivary enzymes contacting food and beginning the breakdown process. It would certainly be feasible to argue that digestion actually begins in the brain when we first look at appetizing food and begin to salivate. Regardless, I will focus this article on the role and critical importance of HCl as it relates to the digestive process in the stomach.
The pH (i.e.: acidity, neutrality, or alkalinity) of gastric (stomach) acid should normally be between 1.5-3.5, according the National Institutes of Health, some sources report an even lower pH. This is the most acidic area in our body and is a result of HCl. There are other components of gastric acid, mostly water, but let’s focus on HCl. I’ll now discuss the four roles HCl plays in the stomach. Two roles relate directly to digestion and the other two indirectly.
1) Hydrochloric acid denatures proteins. Essentially, it cleaves the bonds and basically “melts” the proteins. This is what it is generally thought to do, but there is more. [By the way, undigested proteins tend to result in allergic reactions, as the body can't recognize the substance (when undigested) and the immune system then "attacks" it causing the reaction]
2) Hydrochloric acid also activates a substance called pepsin, via its conversion from a substance called pepsinogen. It is pepsin that mainly digests the protein we eat. Protein is critical for just about everything in our body and every cell in our body; namely collagen, elastin, hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes, antibodies, hair, skin, nails, and muscle; and other bodily functions.
3) Indirectly HCl assists digestion further down the gastrointestinal tract by acting as antiseptic in the stomach. This occurs through literally killing microorganisms that exist in the food we eat. These organisms can come from the handling of food, natural organisms that may be present on raw food, and the unfortunate result of spoiled, semi-spoiled or uncooked meat and fish. Hydrochloric acid will also assist in the prevention of food fermentation that may occur in the dark, moist environment of the stomach. This function of HCl is of critical importance in order to prevent food-poisoning, and clinical or sub-clinical occurrence(s) of yeast, bacterial, viral, parasitic, and protozoal infections – which all happen to be a very common cause of digestive distress.
4) Lastly, HCl allows for proper mineral absorption as it assists in ionizing minerals, like calcium and magnesium to name a few. Minerals are necessary for many functions in the body, especially as catalysts to enzymes that run the important biochemical reactions that take place every second in our body. Additionally, they contribute to structural formation, as in bone.
A need for hydrochloric acid supplementation is definitely one of the most common things I see in patients. Especially those patients who complain of digestive difficulties like bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, yeast overgrowth (even vaginal), and even heartburn. Additionally, patients who complain that they “lost the taste” for meat tend to need HCl as well. Lastly, it should be investigated in everyone with mineral deficiency symptoms, especially osteoporosis. Bone actually has more protein than calcium. To date, I’ve literally only had one patient say that he felt a slight uncomfortable sensation from HCl supplementation, but nothing serious at all according to him. He was willing continue but I chose to have him stop it and use supplements to increase his HCl production instead. This leads me to my next point on how we make HCl.
Here’s how it’s formed. By the way, it takes more energy to make HCl in the body than any other chemical. Additionally, the mineral zinc is absolutely necessary to make it. Hydrochloric acid production is formed by the interaction of carbon dioxide and water, which is mediated by an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase, which is zinc-dependent. As a result, I always supplement zinc when I find a patient needs HCl, and then eventually wean them off the HCl. By the way, a generally accepted reliable indicator of the need for more zinc is white spots on the finger nails. I can’t find conclusive scientific evidence for this, however, I’ve had personal experience with it and also with my patients. Also, chloride is necessary, so don’t be overly afraid to consume sodium chloride (salt) unless it is necessary as determined by your doctor. I find more people need extra salt that not (for reasons beyond the scope of this articles.
One last thing, if HCl supplementation causes irritation to the stomach, or burning in the stomach, you can simply drink down a glass of water and baking soda in order to neutralize the acid right away. Again, I’ve only had it happen to one patient and he felt he didn’t even need the water and baking soda to relieve the discomfort as it was so mild. Warning: if you have been prescribed an acid-blocking medication, you should NOT take supplemental HCl before consulting with the physician who prescribed it. If you take over-the-counter acid-blockers, you should also consult a physician about your problem, as it may be more serious than you think. And remember, those medications were probably prescription-only before they went over-the-counter.
In my experience, digestive symptoms of any sort are quite prevalent. This includes but is not limited to bloating, gas, indigestion, heartburn, diarrhea, and constipation to name the most common. Why those symptoms exist in the first place is key to “fixing” them. And they are also usually the easiest to “fix”. But 90% of the time, the patient must alter their diet. Very often, HCl supplementation is one of the main solutions. But HCl is NOT always necessary. By the way, many, many, many chronic (or acute) low back pain tends to be the result of a dysfunctional digestive system and vice versa. Typically the back pain tends to be dull, achy, diffuse and worse in the morning. Hope this helps!
Dr. Robert D’Aquila – NYC Chiropractor – Applied Kinesiology
Some of this information came from Chris Astill-Smith, DO, DIBAK – and biochemist.