November 21, 2013

Digestion for (not-so) Dummies: Increasing Stomach Acid Naturally (a.k.a. MOAR ACID!)

(Note: this is part 6 of an ongoing, multi-part series. Here are links to Part 1 [Intro], Part 2 [Brain], Part 3 [Mouth], Part 4 [Stomach 1], and Part 5 [Stomach 2].)

We’ve spent a lot of time so far going over how important good digestion is. In our train ride along the north-to-south route of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, we started at the brain, which is not anatomically part of the digestive system, but is arguably one of the most important organs of digestion. After that, we had pit stops at the mouth, esophagus, and stomach. Today, we’re still at the stomach station. What can I say? It’s got a neat gift shop and we’re still looking for the perfect souvenirs to bring with us to the small intestine. In the last two posts, we talked about how important it is to have strong and plentiful stomach acid. But enough talking. It’s time now for action. So today we’ll cover concrete steps you can take to ensure you produce good stomach acid and ways to help yourself when, despite your best efforts, your digestive train is still derailing here.

As we laid out in part 2, digestion starts in the brain. You’ve got to be calm in order to produce stomach acid (HCl). If you’re worked up, stressed out, or otherwise not in a good frame of mind, your body’s got more pressing things to take care of than digesting your food. In part 3, we stressed the importance of eating slowly and chewing thoroughly. Eating slowly gives your stomach time to realize that food has come down the hatch and that it had better start making some acid, pronto. Chewing well eases the stomach’s burden by breaking the food up into very small pieces, thus allowing the stomach to do a little less mechanical breakdown and giving HCl more surface area to work on.

So let’s say we’ve got those things in the brain and mouth mastered, but we’re still feeling symptoms of indigestion. It’s time to go right to the heart of the matter: inside the stomach. 

One of the simplest ways to make the stomach more acidic is to (…drumroll please…) give it some acid. (But not that kind of acid! The only trip we’re taking here is to the supermarket.) Our grandmothers’ low-tech, low-cost home remedy for indigestion is a tried-and-true tummy tamer: apple cider vinegar! ACV has a long and storied history for being able to remedy everything from a broken heart to a broken window (not really), but one place where it really shines is in digestion. (Or should I say indigestion? HA!) A good way to go is a couple of tablespoons in 2-3oz of water about 10-15 minutes before a meal. If you’re especially brave, you can swig the ACV down straight and just do a water chaser. This also works after the fact—if you’ve already eaten and are experiencing indigestion, throw some ACV down the hatch and you’ll likely feel relief rather quickly. The same applies to fresh-squeezed lemon juice. (Check out this post for more on the fascinating & darn near mindblowing properties of vinegar.)

Totally low-tech, totally unglamorous, and totally effective.

Another way to boost the acidity in your stomach is to combine vinegar with bitter greens. If done right, the old-world tradition of starting a meal with a salad is genius. (It also works the way the Italians and the French traditionally do it, with the salad course somewhere in the middle or toward the end of a meal.) What do I mean by “if done right”? Well, bitter flavors stimulate digestive juices. (I won’t bore you with too many details, but I think one thing is worth mentioning just for the gee whiz factor: the reason bitter flavors stimulate digestive juices is that, historically speaking, bitter foods typically contained toxic compounds and our survival depended on our being able to neutralize these quickly and get them out of us [i.e. quick, efficient digestion]. No worries today, though. The bitter plants we eat have been bred over the millennia to not be toxic, but still help with digestion.) What foods am I talking about? Well, when it comes to salads, it’s the greens and other veg with a kind of “peppery bite” to them: arugula, mizuna, endive, frisee, radicchio. Raw radishes are also pretty bitter, although there are some varieties that are on the sweet side. Other very bitter greens are dandelion and mustard greens, but those aren’t too pleasant eaten raw. (But good for digestion…they are very bitter!)

A salad of bitter greens is made an even better digestive aid by splashing on some vinaigrette! Apple cider vinegar isn’t the only one that’ll help your stomach’s acidity. Pretty much any vinegar will do the trick—red wine, champagne, balsamic, etc. (Just try to stay away from store-bought bottled vinaigrettes that taste very sweet. Some have lots of sugar or honey added…I confess I’m not a food chemist, but I suspect that might interfere with the body getting the bitter & acid signals.) The thing to remember is, a salad of iceberg lettuce, mandarin orange segments, crispy fried tortilla strips, and dried cranberries with honey mustard dressing is not a digestive aid! Not one of those items is bitter. (And, frankly, with all that sugar, that salad is more like a dessert!)

Bitter greens: pretty and powerful!

So we’ve got vinegar, lemon juice, and bitter greens. What else can we do to help our struggling stomachs? Digestive bitters. I’m not too familiar with these, but they’re yet another old-world tradition. Some bitters are vital ingredients in classic cocktails, which is why some alcoholic beverages are used as "aperitifs" or "digestifs," to stimulate the appetite and get a head start on digestion.

Taking another tack, many herbs and spices are well-known in the natural medicine world for helping to aid digestion and calm a sour stomach. If you look at tea in the health food aisle of your supermarket, or if you’re intrepid enough to brave the gigantic and overwhelming tea section of a larger health food store, the ingredients on any tea claiming to promote better digestion or to help with stomachaches will likely include one or more of the following: ginger, fennel, dandelion, peppermint, licorice, burdock, yellow dock, black pepper, cayenne, and maybe cinnamon and cardamom. (Note: almost all of these are "warming" spices. As I've mentioned before, ice cold things and good digestion do not mix.)

If all else fails, there’s nothing wrong with using HCl supplements. Yes, you read that right, you can actually take HCl in pill form! Sometimes it comes by itself, and sometimes it comes as part of a blend of HCl and digestive enzymes. These are not habit-forming, and contrary to what you’d think, over time, they actually help boost the body’s natural acid production. (Some supplements and drugs—particularly hormones—reduce the body’s own production of the substance. HCl supplements, on the other hand, seem to “remind” the stomach that it’s supposed to be acidic, so over time, you can wean off of them, as should be the goal with most supplements and drugs. In other words, it’s not something you’ll need to be on for the rest of your life.) The pill bottle might say to take one or two with each meal, but that ain’t gonna cut it for most folks. The real way to take HCl is to take a few bites of food, let your stomach register that there’s something to digest, and then take one or two pills. Wait a few minutes and if you don’t feel a warming sensation, take one more. Repeat this until you do feel a warming sensation. The effective dose for you is one pill fewer than when you felt the warming. (So if you took six and then felt warming, your proper dose is five—per meal. It’s not unusual for people to need this many at first, especially if digestion has been compromised for a long time. There are high-dose HCl supps available so you can take just one instead of, say, six or seven at a time.) I know I sometimes rag on outside interventions for improved health, but I am not kidding when I say HCl and digestive enzyme support have been lifesavers for people. With all the conditions that can result from low stomach acid, sometimes it’s utterly necessary and completely sensible to pop pills. (Especially when, as in the case of these digestive supports, they help a key process happen better, unlike acid blockers that mess with the body and prevent an indispensable process from happening.)

Indeed, sometimes relief can be found in a pill bottle.
(Temporary relief, anyway.)

Okay. So all the above were what to do for better stomach acidity. How about what not to do? Simple. We covered this in previous parts of this series, but a little reminder never hurts:

Don’t eat when you’re running around like a chicken without its head. If you are stressed out, angry, worried, or hurrying enough to notice that you’re stressed out, angry, worried, and hurrying, then you know darn well digestion is not going to be your body’s primary focus. If you can wait a little while until things have calmed down, do it. If not, and if you absolutely, positively must cram something down your gullet before you speed off to your next commitment, you might want to pop a couple of HCl supplements or swig some ACV as an insurance policy. We all know the old line about an ounce of prevention, right?

Another thing to avoid during mealtimes is large amounts of liquid. There is no need to drink three or four glasses of water, soda, iced tea, or whatever your preferred beverage is, while you eat. Yes, I know I pointed out in part 4 that the mucus that protects the stomach lining from being eroded by its own acid is mostly water, but that doesn’t mean we need to drink a lot of water while we eat. We should be keeping hydrated throughout the day so that when it’s time to eat, we don’t feel especially thirsty.

Why is it a bad idea to drink a ton of liquid during meals? Super simple: we don’t want to dilute the stomach acid we’ve gone out of our way to produce! This is also why, if you try the lemon juice/ACV trick mentioned above, you want to drink it as close to full-strength as possible. Drowning 2 tablespoons of ACV in 8 ounces of water isn’t going to give you the same bang for your digestive buck as adding 1 or 2 ounces just to take the edge off.

It’s okay to drink while we eat, but we should be sipping here and there, not chugging huge amounts and asking for multiple refills. And the beverages we do drink during meals shouldn’t be ice cold. Core body temperature is almost 99 degrees, right? Well, if we swallow a bunch of ice cold water, our bodies have to heat that up, and that takes energy away from the process of digestion. Digestive enzymes are designed to function within a very narrow range of temperature and pH. Too hot or too cold will render them less effective. Think about it: when you’re cold, you huddle yourself up, bring your arms in, and tighten your muscles. But when it’s more comfortable, you open up, sit back, relax, and everything’s groovy. Your GI tract is the same way. Freezing cold beverages --> digestive process freezing up.

Even with the lemon juice in it, big glasses of ice cold lemonade—with refills—aren’t 
a wise way to go during mealtime. (The same goes for soda, water, and iced tea.)

So yeah: large amounts of very cold beverages and happy, smooth digestion do not mix.

Now that we’ve done some serious troubleshooting from the brain to the stomach, next time we’ll move on to the small intestine, where the digestive main events really happen. If you think the stomach’s a hard worker, hang onto your hat. For hardcore, do-your-parents-know-you’re-doing-this digestive action, nothing beats the small intestine.  

In the meantime, I offer you a couple of links for more helpful information on boosting stomach acid naturally: 

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. I am new to your blog and really am finding it educational. I am going to try consuming more ACV .On days I remember to begin my day with a glass of warm water with the juice of a lemon followed by a brisk walk, I feel much better.

    1. Funny you should mention this...I have a post coming up that's all about vinegar -- it brings some very surprising benefits! (Better digestion included, but they go far beyond that, too.) Also: glad you stumbled upon the blog and are finding it useful. :)

  2. Thank you so much it healped me alot !!

  3. Been trying hcl with dgl. When i take them have normal bowel movements. But still have stomach issues. When i take ppis get diahharea. Does that mean low stomach acid. Trying to flgure it out.

    1. I can't say for sure whether taking PPIs could cause diarrhea, but it sounds possible. (PPIs prevent proper digestion, so, theoretically, you would have improperly digested food passing into your intestine, which your body might be "rejecting" somehow, and wanting to get rid of it as soon as possible...

  4. Should one chew meat and thus mix it with the alkaline saliva?

    1. Why wouldn't you chew meat? ;-) Technically, you don't "have to" chew animal flesh. Good stomach acid should dispatch it pretty well, but I'm not sure why you wouldn't chew it before swallowing.

  5. In the past I had taken Betaine HCL, one with each meal and at night I would get terrible acid reflux/heartburn. Does this mean I likely don't have low stomach acid?

    1. Hard to say...were you taking the HCl because you *already* had heartburn? Reflux can be caused by other things, too -- especially if, when you say "at night," you mean when you were laying down. If that's the case, could be a weak lower esophageal sphincter. Some people with really bad reflux at night actually sleep propped up on pillows or in a recliner or something.

  6. I have always had a low PH in my blood levels every time they have checked it. I also have had excessive diarrhea for years since my gallbladder has been taken out. about 4 month ago I went in for a colonoscopy and 30 days after started getting loss of appetite and then none at all with excessive vomiting. ended up in hospital with multiple issues. Doctor put me on a PPL , have now heartburn , loss of appetite and a mouth sores and a swollen tongue and mouth and gum burning and dryness. I have stopped taking all of these now and still have mouth issues. But they seem to be lessening. Doctors tell me to eat salt. makes issue worse in my mouth. Would this remedy help, I really do not want to take medication to help my body produce what it should be doing anyway.

    1. Low *blood* pH is a completely separate issue from low *stomach* acid. It sounds like you have a very complex situation, and it would be irresponsible of me to try to address it here in the blog comments. If you'd like, email me privately (tuitnutrition [at] gmail [dot] com), and give me some more information about your history and current circumstances and I'll see if anything jumps out at me. At the very least, though, you might benefit from some supplemental ox bile, since you've had your gallbladder removed. See my post on the gallbladder:

  7. Very informative and helpful Amy. I have been using 4 HCL pill for the last 4 months but I haven't felt any warmth in my stomach indicating stomach acid increase. How and when do I know I will taper off Betaine HCL pills? Thank you.