So many times I have heard people say they need to alkaline their bodies as they are producing too much acid in their stomachs — experiencing reflux, heartburn or indigestion (or all of these!). Is this actually what our bodies are actually telling us? Let’s look at another possible perspective.
To understand what is happening in our bodies let’s head back to Year 7 science when we learnt about acids and bases. pH is the measure of acidity or alkalinity. This ranges on a scale of 0 to 14. 0 is pure acid and will burn through anything it touches. 14 is pure alkaline. 7 is neutral.
Each of our body fluids or tissues have a specific pH level or pH range in which it works at its optimum. Our blood for example should be a pH of 7.4, just above neutral. We want our stomach to be acidic. Ideally around a pH of 1.9. At this level of acidity it would burn our skin if we touched it. The cells that line our stomach not only produce this acid, they are built to withstand this. For many people the pH level in our stomachs are greater than 1.9 (moving closer to neutral) and therefore not acidic enough to do its job effectively.
What is the role of stomach acid?
Our stomach acid has 2 main roles
1. To break down the chemical bonds that hold our food together.
2. To protect us by killing any harmful bacteria or viruses that enter the body through our food
If we think about our food as a series of links on a chain. It is the job of our stomach acid to break the links in this chain so we are left with smaller portions of links approximately 2 to 4 links long. We want our stomach acid to begin to breakdown our food, to break the chemical bonds that hold it together. We want it begin to break apart the different nutrients and minerals. We most definitely want it to kill any potential pathogens that have made it into our foods.
That burning sensation that many people experience is when our stomach acid makes it way up into our oesophagus, where the cells lining that part of our digestive tract aren’t designed to withstand the acidity, hence the burning sensation. Or it could be experienced as our food moves from our stomach into our small intestine, where our pancreas fails to release enough sodium bicarbonate to dampen down the acidity.
Many people believe that this burning sensation means they have too much acid in their stomachs or it’s too acidic. However usually the opposite is true. The stomach acid is actually too high, remember we want a low stomach acid pH of 1.9. The result of this is the acid in our stomachs is not able to effectively break down the links in the chain that creates our food. For example instead of the remaining parts of the chain being between 2 and 4 links long there are some that are left at 7 links long. Our body is very clever and it knows that if a piece of food 7 links long continues down our digestive tract it is not going to be able to be digested. So instead of allowing it to continue it wants to get rid of it and there for regurgitates it. This is when you experience the burn sensation. The burn is felt as the pH of the food that is regurgitated is too acidic for the lining of the oesophagus. Remember each section of our digestive tract has its own optimal pH — the stomach is designed to withstand this acidity the oesophagus is not.
Similarly when our food leaves our stomach through the pyloric sphincter, the valve at the bottom of your stomach that allows our food to travel into the duodenum, the upper part of our small intestines, a burning sensation can also be felt. This valve is located in the middle of our chests and is often when people will complain of heartburn.
If the pH is not established in our stomachs, when it is not acidic enough, the signals to our pancreas to release sodium bicarbonate are not effective. This sodium bicarbonate is responsible for protecting the upper part of our small intestine from the acidity of the food released from the stomach and helping to continue the digestion of our food. This not only contributes to discomfort in this area, it can cause digestive problems further along the tract such as bloating, pain or wind.
How can we invigorate our stomach acid?
1.Chew your food.
Chewing your food actually stimulates the stomach to start producing acid. Not only does it begin to breakdown our food, chewing sends messages to our brain to let our stomach know food is on its way. If we are inhaling our food, our stomach doesn’t get this message and finds it difficult to operate when the food comes in. Please slow down and chew your food.
If you are a food inhaler try counting the amount of times you chew your food — go for 20 to 30. Don’t put another forkful in before you have finished the one before. Put down your cutlery between mouthfuls. Do anything you can to slow down and chew your food. Yes this may seem so simple but like many changes in behaviours can be challenging and necessary.
2.Physically stimulate production.
Both lemon juice and apple cider vinegar (ACV) work really well.
Using ACV: Begin with 1 teapsoon of ACV in as much water (room temperature) as you need approximately 5 to 20 minutes before eating. Breakfast is a great place to start as this wakes up our digestion after we have been asleep. Ideally though to help with digestion throughout the day, before every meal will be beneficial. As you continue to do this reduce the amount of water and increase amount of ACV to 1 tablespoon.
Using Lemon: Begin with the juice of half a lemon in warm water and increase this to the juice of a whole lemon in less warm water. It is also really nice to start the day with this as your first drink of the day.
3.Skip the water with your meals
As water has a pH of 7 (neutral) or higher depending on its mineral content, this can be a contributor to the increase in stomach acid. You are literally putting water onto a fire. Having a glass of water with our meals is a habit many of us have. If you are having digestive challenges try cutting out your glass of water with your meals and concentrate drinking between meals. Try not consuming your water 30 minutes before or after your meals and see if you feel any different. This is not to say you can’t drink anything, just stay clear of the water.
4.Calm the mind
Taking 5 deep belly breathes before beginning your meal, not only helps you appreciate the aroma of the food in front of you (which helps your body prepare for the nourishment that is on it’s way), it also puts your body into a state of rest and digest. We want to be in this state when we sit down to eat and not in a state of flight or fight. When we are calm our body will ensure we have the necessary resources to extract all the goodness we need from our food. If we are still running in our flight or fight state, resources will be diverted away and our digestion will not be optimised.
Before masking the symptoms with over the counter solutions which often raise the pH of your stomach, exacerbating symptoms, or attempting to alkalise your body, consider the above and take a new perspective on what you body is trying to tell you. Remember listen to your body when it whispers so you it doesn’t have to scream.
Just a quick note: if you regularly experience pain or discomfort in this area please consult with your health professional as this may be indicative that additional support is needed.