Why you want more stomach acid, not less.

Diane Sanfilippo Digestion, Featured 39 Comments

“I have too much stomach acid.”

“I have acid reflux, I need to lower my stomach acid.”

“I have heartburn, it must be that I'm eating too much protein.”

“I can't digest much protein, it just sits in my stomach like lead.”

Any of these sound familiar? Perhaps you've uttered one or more of them yourself. 

What they all have in common is that they're probably all wrong. While the assumption seems logical that if you FEEL stomach acid that you must have too much, the opposite is true in nearly all cases.

Common symptoms of low stomach acid include:

  • burning feeling in gut after meals (heartburn!)
  • frequent belching after meals
  • indigestion
  • feeling of fullness after meals
  • stomach upsets easily
  • gas, flatulence after meals
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • chronic intestinal infections: bacterial, yeasts, parasites
  • chronic candida infection (candidiasis)
  • undigested food in stools
  • known food sensitivities

How could too LITTLE stomach acid FEEL like too much?

When food enters your stomach, it's the job of your stomach (primarily your stomach acid – hydrochloric acid or HCl) to begin to break down, or denature, proteins into amino acids (this process is known as proteolysis) as well as to send the signal downstream to your pancreas to prepare to release digestive enzymes. It's also the job of proper levels of HCl to kill off any microscopic pathogenic material that may be present in our food before they pass through to the small intestine. Frequent food poisoning, anyone? Without appropriate levels of stomach acid, these tasks cannot properly and comfortably be completed.

When you feel acid reflux/heartburn, what's happening is that stomach acid is creeping back up your esophagus, which is naturally an alkaline environment. Since stomach acid is, well, acidic, you FEEL that acid causing a burning sensation. Here's the catch, when stomach acid remains IN your stomach, you don't feel the acid, right? That's because, if all is working properly (and you do not have a gastric ulcer) the lining of your stomach has an intact mucosal lining which forms a barrier so that you don't feel the acid that's there, doing it's job.

But wait, why do I feel reflux from not enough stomach acid?!

When you swallow a bite, you send food down your esophagus to your stomach. Chances are, you didn't chew it that well. Most of us don't chew our food as completely as we should, which isn't helping anything. (Note to reader: CHEW YOUR FOOD. WELL.) When food hits your stomach, it's GO time. Your stomach begins to churn and mix HCl and other digestive enzymes with your food to produce chyme (the blend of denatured food and HCl). According to Chris Kresser, L.Ac, the reflux “is caused by increased pressure in the stomach resulting in a malfunction of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The increase in pressure is caused by bacterial overgrowth and malabsorption of carbohydrates, both of which are precipitated by low stomach acid [emphasis mine]. Reducing bacteria loads and limiting carbohydrate intake have both been shown to greatly improve, and in some cases completely cure, acid reflux and GERD.”

Here's what you can do to naturally increase stomach acid.


Consuming foods that are difficult to digest (grains) and that disrupt blood sugar regulation (refined foods, all grain products, sweeteners, etc.) will promote the breakdown of your digestive process. These foods will feed the bad bacteria in your gut and encourage them to proliferate and will also disrupt digestion via increased intestinal permeability (aka: leaky gut). Some other digestion-disruptors include but are not limited to legumes, dairy (mainly pasteurized), alcohol, NSAID drugs, and antibiotics.


Okay, that won't really change your stomach acid, but it WILL help your stomach out once food hits it, AND, it helps you get a head start on the next step…


Your body is not equipped to handle digestive functions properly if you are stressed out. You've heard of flight or flight mode, right? Well the opposite of that is rest and digest mode. Clinically speaking we call these sympathetic or parasympathetic dominant modes. While the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your stress response in fight or flight, your parasympathetic (often referred to as the autonomic nervous system, or ANS) nervous system is responsible for the functions that you don't consciously control.

Coincidentally, you can consciously control the sympathetic nervous system by your thoughts (sent as signals via neurotransmitters) and you can actually adjust your breathing and thought process to bring yourself out of a sympathetic dominant mode and into parasympathetic dominant mode. This means you can literally think and breathe your way out of a stress response. You've done that before, right? Well, you may need to do this on a regular basis each time you eat.

The thing is, even if you're not just wrapping up a heart-pounding workout, you may be experiencing a lower-level of chronic stress that's causing your rest and digest mode to suffer. You NEED to calm down before you eat.


  • Reduce your intake of carbohydrates, fiber and sugar/sweeteners in all forms (including artificial), especially fructose. These all promote dysbiosis (imbalanced gut flora) by feeding the bad bacteria in your gut.
  • Lemon juice or apple cider vinegar. Try about 1Tbsp in 1oz of water taken 10-20 minutes before a meal.
  • Digestive bitters. You can find these in tincture form (liquid in a dropper) many health food stores. Dosage will vary and will be marked on the bottle.


You can find these at any health food shop and typically they'll contain betaine HCl. Take 1 with a meal and note any changes or sensations. Add 1 to each dose taking one more at each meal until you feel a slight burning in your upper gastric area. Once you feel that, back off and take the amount that was lower. So, for example, take 1 with meal #1, 2 with meal #2 and 3 with meal #3. If you still feel nothing, keep going until you do. I would estimate that stopping around 5 will ease symptoms even if you still don't feel the burning sensation so more than that may not be necessary. Read more on this topic here.

Also an important warning from Chris Kresser on HCl supplementation: “HCL should never be taken (and this test should not be performed) by anyone who is also using any kind of anti-inflammatory medication such as corticosteroids (e.g. predisone), aspirin, Indocin, ibuprofen (e.g. Motrin, Advil, etc.) or other NSAIDS. These drugs can damage the GI lining that supplementary HCL might aggravate, increasing the risk of gastric bleeding or ulcer.”

If you have started The 21-Day Sugar Detox and are experiencing increased symptoms of low stomach acid, the change in your diet, though for the better, may be what's promoting that feeling. Refer to the steps above for “what to do” and rest assured that this is part of the detox process. Your body is resetting and re-establishing a baseline of HEALTH. Often things feel worse before they get better. This is normal and to be expected. If you have been on a proton pump inhibiting drug for an extended period of time, you will need to take further steps beyond just increasing stomach acid to ensure that you'll begin properly absorbing nutrients from your food again. Refer to the article I've linked to below from Chris Kresser for more on those action steps.

If symptoms of low stomach acid persist for the duration of The 21-Day Sugar Detox, you may be dealing with a more serious issue of a gut pathogen and I recommend contacting either a Certified Nutrition Consultant, a Naturopathic Doctor or an MD who understands your desire to maintain a whole-foods diet to have a stool test conducted. If you have a pathogen (H. Pylori, SIBO, or otherwise), it will be nearly impossible to resolve this issue without clearing the infection from your system first.

Listen to this podcast episode with Chris Kresser where we talked ALL about digestion, when it goes wrong and what to do about it: The Balanced Bites Podcast, Episode #8.

Don't take my word for it, Chris Kresser has written extensively on this topic in a six part series on heartburn and GERD. Check out his series here.

I also included an at-home HCl level test in my previous post entitled “Your stomach acid is a good thing. Really.” here.


Comments 39

  1. Hi –
    I am kateoldkate on twitter. i have been doing the 21dsd for 8 days now. at first i lost a few pounds, now i am gaining. i haven’t cheated once, not even a tic tac! i know i don’t chew my food well and am always eating in a hurry as i feed my family – though we do all sit down together for dinner, but i am always jumping up to get something. the stress thing may explain why i am still gassy after meals though i have had no grains. i am also noticing how much sugar my kids and my husband eat! keep the advice coming . . . i tried to get a book on paleo at the library today – there were none. you may have a convert here, despite the weight gain, i’m going to keep up with the sugar detox – i really don’t miss it.

    1. You may actually be digesting and absorbing food BETTER than you were before, which might lead to some weight gain. I wouldn’t weigh yourself again until the 3 weeks is up 😉

      1. funny, my husband said i shouldn’t weigh myself. i will hang in there. i love not being a slave to sugar/bread cravings. love love love the coconut aminos and my kids LOVE the kale chips! trying the zuccini pancakes tomorrow

  2. Interesting read – thanks! It makes sense to me.

    Question: I was taking Zegrid prescription to treat a ‘lump in the throat’ feeling, that was explained to me as me having too much acid. After about a year, I stopped the medication with no more ‘lump’ feeling – however I do get heartburn now, which is new. This is even more pronounced during hard training rides, as well as consuming energy gels when on longer rides.

    Should this subside as my body finds its balance again?

    1. Hard training rides (increased stress) and energy gels (refined food/sugar) are two promotors of low stomach acid. I would back off of the training and eliminate refined foods/sugars from your diet. Restoring HCl is foundational to optimal health. Clearly you love to ride, but it’s not making you healthier, rather is pushing your body to respond with stress that is impairing digestive function, which is the cornerstone to your overall health and longevity.

      1. thanks for the input, but can tell you that the training is ramping UP, not down. 🙂 i don’t eat many refined foods, but could improve on the sugar intake. the gels are a necessary source of food when on the bike for 4-6 hours. that said – you’re not able to suggest alternatives? 🙂

        1. Other alternatives to not stressing your system out? No. That’s your choice. As long as you choose it, you will likely need to deal with this issue. Alternatively, finding ways to reduce systemic stress (meditation?) may help. You choose how to live and stress your system (or not).

        2. Is there a way you can carry little packs of coconut oil with you rather than the gels? I understand that the level of training you are undergoing will require you to keep the glycogen stores re-stocked if you haven’t taught your body how to rely upon fat…perhaps a homemade mash of coconut oil and banana. Still some sugar there, but lots of energy in the fat that is easily absorbed and used quickly by the body, with a natural source of carbohydrate that includes some needed electrolytes. Thoughts anyone?

  3. I love this post! Extremely informative and I learned a few things I may have been misled on prior to now.

    Thanks for the homemade digestive aids! Lemons just came in on the backyard tree and I’ll be giving that a go!

  4. This is so true. I had heartburn so badly that I ended up in the ER. They ran an EKG, thinking I was having a heart attack, and found nothing. The “gastric cocktail” didn’t work so they gave me morphine. Yeah, it was that bad.

    I was prescribed Prilosec, which only seemed to make it worse. Same thing with Tums and Zyrtec. I was so very frustrated.

    I was channel surfing one day and came across a show that talked about gut health, and how acid reflux was really caused by too little acid. I started taking a spoonful of apple cider vinegar when it acted up, and it would relieve my pain in about 20 minutes, like magic.

    Now I eat Primal and never get the pain to begin with.

  5. I have actually been having stomach issues for about 4 years now. It started with the worst heartburn I have ever had. I was on Protonix for 6 months or more (I remember having to get special permission from insurance to take it for more than 3 months). I had an upper GI that proved I had GERD, so I just did want the docotor’s said and stayed on protonix. That was my only stomach issue. then a couple of months after coming off the proton pump inhibitor I started having more stomach troubles. The heartburn was mostly gone, but I ended up having diarrhea 6 times per day on a regular basis. I went back to the doc and had lots of tests that were all negative or inconclusive. The doc told me it was in my head and it must be stress so on with the stress medications and the anti-anxiety meds. I know I am an anxious person, but I didnt feel that my life was any different at the time.

    Each medicine worked for about two weeks and then back to an upset stomach all the time. I was gassy, bloated and just felt sick all the time. The next step was to just give up and go with an anti-spasmodic medication Librax with clindidum which worked. Yay! Success. I knew that it did not make me better, but it made my gut calm down and I finally could just feel better for a while without more tests. I let this go on for about a year and symptoms started coming back.

    At this point I found an Osteopath that also does acupuncture. She put me on an allergy diet right away to figure out if I had any food allergies and some gut healing supplenments. When I was off grains and sugar I was losing 2 lbs per week and felt a lot better but not 100%. Nothing really stood out as a food allergy when I added the foods back in. I was still gassy and bloated. On a whim several months after the allergy diet my Osteopah suggested trying some Betaine HCL. Gas and bloating gone!!!!!!! I had low stomach acid. All the things I had dealt with in the past suddenly made sense! I have been supplementing with Betaine HCL for about 4 months now. I still have trouble with fatty foods, so I am also trying taurine to stimulate bile salt production. I may also be low in bile salts, which is why fatty foods don’t agree with me. something is working because I ate prime rib for Christmas and I didn’t feel like I was going to die. Yay!

    My last step to get all of this to work is to cut carbs/sugars/grains from my diet. It is really hard, especially when the person I live with does not support this choice. We prepare large meals so we have lunches for the week at work. One of these days, Hopefully sooner rather than later I will be off carbs/sugars and letting my gut heal.

    Having more stomach acid has really changed my life. Even though I am not 100% the gas is nearly gone and the bloating/cramping is much better.

    Thank you for this post. It’s great to have another perspective on the digestion issue.

  6. Huh…did not know about the beet juice test and yes, my urine turns reddish. However, I have tried HCI on two occasions and it doesn’t work for me. Even a small does gives me extremely painful and unbearable reflux. I may be at the point of consulting a doc.

    1. I tried HCI as well and had the same results. But recently I went to a naturopath and was given Naturpharm M2 digestive enzymes. I take them 2/3 of the way through a meal and find my symptoms are much better. Sometimes if I have a real heavy meal and it is still not quite digesting I will take one more and that seems to fix it.

  7. Measure you progress by how your close feel, forget the scales for the time being. I found supplementing 90g sea kelp twice a day help my metabolism stabilize at the beginning of paleo detox. I don’t know why but my guess is it involves Iodine and our Thyroid.

  8. Hi Diane,

    I was diagnosed with a hiatal herniaa number of years ago – I went to the doctor after experiencing severe reflux for about a year or two. I saw a gastronenterologist who confirm what my GP suspected with a barium swallow. At the time, he felt that it was best to treat nonsurgically using PPIs. I was on nexium for many years until I had to switch to otc Zegerid because of changes with my insurance. I’ve had several doctors since that time, and they always continue prescribe the PPIs. Now, I rarely forget to take it, and when I do, I noticed within half an hour of drinking or eating anything other than water. I wonder if you have any thoughts on using PPIs and reducing acid when living with a hiatal hernia.


    1. My mother uses betaine HCL with pepsin and digestive enzyme supplements and no longer suffers GERD or LPR. She has low stomach acid but also has a hiatal hernia.

  9. I’d heard about this a couple of years ago and was super excited to try it. I’d hoped it would be the ticket to finally being able to stop taking Nexium. I tried the ACV and my acid reflux felt even worse. Some time later I tried the HCI tablets with pepsin. Same thing, the reflux got worse. I started the Paleo diet on 2/1 of this year and felt better so I stopped taking the Nexium after 2 weeks. I was okay for the first day. By the night of the second day I was really uncomfortable and by the morning of the 3rd day I couldn’t stand it any more and started taking the pills again. I feel like I’m going to be dependent on this pill for forever!

    1. Have you been tested for H. Pylori? Getting to the root of the issue is critical to healing it. A PPI isn’t what your body needs in order to heal, though it may provide relief temporarily, it is down regulating normal body functions. I would read the articles linked here to Chris Kresser’s site for a lot more in-depth info on the issue. You can also call in to a radio show tonight perhaps to ask him for further advice! http://www.blogtalkradio.com/undergroundwellness/2012/02/17/ask-chris-kresser

      1. Thanks for the reply. I did test negative for H. Pylori. I’m wondering if I am one of those people who just really do have too much stomach acid. Thanks for the suggestion about calling in to the radio show!

  10. This is me D! To the T… i go from feeling hungry, to feeling like i ate a whole meal with just a couple of bites. I always have the feeling that i have stuffed myself, even if i haven’t. I do feel it’s gotten worse since starting a strict Paleo diet, but i’m sure it’s what you said… my stomach is adjusting. I’m going to try the bitters and the Betaine supplementation. What do you think…. is apple cider vinegar enough, or are bitters better? Have about Probiotics?
    In Peru we use Angostura Bitters in Pisco Sour…. LOL, too bad alcohol cancels out the bitters effect; if that bitters could do anything 😛 LOL! (no, i don’t drink often AT ALL, but i’f you’ve never had a Pisco Sour, you need to try it!)

    I really appreciate your posts and the time you take to make this info accessible. Thanks girl!!

      1. Ok! i can be a bit of an eager beaver 😛
        Betaine will be test 1. If ti helps, man, i’ll be so happy! i’ve spent too many years with this “ball” in my stomach. Could this also be causing my dairy intolerance? I used to get bad sinus headaches whenever i ate dairy, so i stopped many years ago.

  11. when I tried a tablespoon apple cider vinegar before meals, it made my heartburn WAY worse. does this mean I have enough HCL or what? (I have tested negative for H pilori and had a clean endoscopy but I still get pain from time to time. I tried PPIs for a little bit but the risks weren’t worth it)

    1. The same thing happens to me. From time to time I’ve experimented with taking a spoon of apple cider vinegar before a meal and had horrible reflux for hours after. Can’t figure out why this would happen?

  12. Reduce your fiber…? Disagree. I have read this theory before and many Doctors also disagree. Fruits and Veg and their fiber promote healthy gut flora and push away the toxic kind. Bada Bing!

    1. I know that’s what they say but my body doesn’t listen to those experts 😉 If I eat fiber, I get worse constipation, GERD, LPR, burping, etc.

  13. Digestive problems? Tums is not your friend….
    Mine problem was silent as I never realized I had an issue until my esophagus was closing up with scar tissue. I had the surgery to break up the scar tissue. The Doctor also told me mine will be come cancerous if I don’t treat it. Since I was introduced to our products I use treatment with Calcium, Digestive enzymes and a shot of Aloe before bed. I have also raised the head of the bed 4”. Our product are amazing and healing tissue with keeping it in check. This is one of my strong why to doing the business, to stay healthy….. my family is counting on me staying around for a long time. http://www.shop.com/jvglenn/search/Digestive+health-Market+America-+5?s=72094

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  16. I’m curious, do you have any studies that support the link between low stomach acid and GERD? I’m all for plausible theories, but I have a friend that works as a PA in gastroenterology and she has said that in the years she’s been practicing, they have only once or twice seen someone with low stomach acid.

    I’m hesitant to believe in something that contradicts standard practice without evidence.

    1. Post

      I apologize for the late reply, I am just finding some of these comments now. I would like to point you to Chris Kresser’s site (chriskresser.com) for additional research on this topic. I consider myself a nutritionist and someone who is trying to help people understand their bodies well and take care of them, but I am not a scientist, doctor, or researcher. Thanks so much!

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