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Hydrochloric Acid: Stomach Acid that Defends Against GERD, Candida & Leaky Gut
July 4, 2018
Hydrochloric acid (also called HCL, HCL acid or betaine hydrochloride in supplement form) is considered one of the most important fluids (or “juices”) found in the human body. HCL is found inside the stomach and needed for many processes involved in digestive health. Unfortunately as you age, your production of hydrochloric acid decreases — which can increase gastrointestinal issues like heartburn, bloating and poor nutrient absorption. Additionally, not producing enough HCL can lead to many other problems, such as skin problems, including acne or rosacea, mineral deficiencies and autoimmune reactions.
HCL is a strong acid given that it has a low pH level, which helps to keep the stomach a very acidic environment. While normally we want to avoid having our bodies become overly acidic, preferring instead to remain slightly more alkaline, our stomach is an exception. The stomach should be a very acidic place (stomach acidity should remain between a pH of 1 and 2) because acid helps kill microbes and pathogenic bacteria that may be a threat to us. (1)
Low stomach acid, meaning low levels of hydrochloric acid and other gastric juices, has been linked to many health conditions — including increased gas and bloating, heartburn or GERD, acid reflux symptoms, candida, bacterial overgrowth in the gut, and trouble digesting protein, just to name a few. How can you naturally help increase your production of HCL? First, it’s important to limit risk factors associated with low stomach acid, including crash dieting, stress and taking certain medications. You can naturally support your body’s ability to make gastric juices by eating an anti-inflammatory diet, exercising, practicing other healthy habits and supplementing with HCL if need be.
Read on to learn more about the benefits of hydrochloric acid, how to improve its production and more.
What Is Hydrochloric Acid?
What is hydrochloric acid (HCL), and what is it used for? HCL is a natural component of our gastric juices/gastric acid. It it produced by cells in the stomach and has a number of important roles when it comes to protecting us from infections. Gastric fluids help us break down the foods we eat so we can absorb their nutrients and get rid of waste.
HCL is secreted by parietal cells (or oxyntic cells) via a secretory network called canaliculi into a part of the stomach called the lumen. This is a process that is said to be a “large energetic burden,” meaning it requires a lot of energy. (2) Your body is willing to spend a lot of resources producing HCL acid because it’s needed to protect against nutrient deficiencies, leaky gut, candida and much more.
Hypochlorhydria is the medical term for low stomach acid. (3) The complete absence of hydrochloric acid specifically in the stomach is called achlorhydria (or gastric anacidity), which is associated with some serious health conditions like chronic gastritis or gastric carcinoma, pernicious anemia, pellagra, and alcoholism. (4) Signs that you’re likely not making enough gastric juices include lack of appetite, fullness shortly after eating a small amount, pain and burning sensations, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.
What are some reasons you may be struggling with low production of hydrochloric acid, gastric juices and stomach acid? Low stomach acid is a very common problem among people living in Western industrialized nations for reasons including:
- Regularly taking antacids in order to reduce heartburn symptoms. Recent research indicates these drug often mask unresolved physiological problems and can cause further complications. (5)
- Eating a poor diet that includes lots of processed foods.
- Chronic stress.
- Taking antibiotics and certain other medications.
- Lack of exercise/enough physical activity or very intense exercise. (6)
- Alcoholism, smoking and exposure to other toxins.
- Aging (it’s estimated that 30 percent to 40 percent or more of men and women over the age of 60 suffer from atrophic gastritis, meaning little or no acid secretion, and this condition is even more common among adults over 80).
- Food allergies/intolerances.
- Eating disorders, malnutrition or extreme dieting/calorie restriction. (7, 8)
- Pregnancy and hormonal changes may also cause changes in stomach acid production and initiate GI issues.
Related: Phenylethylamine: The Little-Known Supplement that Supports Brain Health
While our bodies naturally make HCL, hydrochloric acid is also a synthetically made chemical compound that is used in numerous laboratory and industrial settings. There are dozens of different uses for hydrochloric acid, which has important roles in industries ranging from construction to food manufacturing. Some of the most important uses of HCL include helping make steel, cleaning products and chemical solvents (more on these uses can be found below).
1. Aids in Digestion and Fights Heartburn/Acid Reflux
What does hydrochloric acid do to help with digestion? Hydrochloric acid in your stomach helps you break down foods that you eat, especially protein, and assimilate nutrients. Pepsin is a digestive enzyme that has the role of degrading (breaking down) protein, but HCL first needs to make pepsin’s job easier. Acidic gastric juices are also needed to signal the release of bile from the liver and enzymes from the pancreas. This supports the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, fats, and essential nutrients like vitamins A and E.
What are some signs that you may not be producing adequate HCL and that your stomach is not acidic enough? These include bloating, gas, burping, heartburn and acid reflux. It might seem counterintuitive, but acid reflux/heartburn are not usually due to high amounts of stomach acid but are actually associated with inflammation and even low stomach acid in some cases. Heartburn occurs when there’s dysfunction of the sphincter valve located at the top of your stomach that normally stops acid from being let out into the esophagus. (9)
This valve won’t close and open properly if there’s inflammation in the GI tract and if the pH of the stomach is not highly acidic. When gastric acid reaches the esophagus, it causes symptoms including pain, burning, coughing, hoarseness, throat irritation, asthma and more.
Can high amounts of HCL in the stomach cause ulcers or heartburn? The stomach itself does not get damaged by HCL because the lining of the stomach is protected by secretions that help form a thick mucus layer. Sodium bicarbonate is also found in the lining of the stomach, which helps to neutralize HCL’s effects.
Again, heartburn and peptic ulcers are usually the result of dysfunction of the mucus layer of the stomach and of the sphincter valve. Certain medications/drugs can also increase your chance of developing heartburn or stomach ulcers, especially antacids, antihistamines and proton pump inhibitors. These drugs inhibit the production of acid in the stomach. They work by neutralizing excessive acid that is already in the stomach, but this can have negative effects in the long term.
2. Has Antimicrobial Effects and Protects Against Leaky Gut
What are the effects of hydrochloric acid on the bacteria living within your gut? An article published in the journal PLOS One states, “Gastric acidity is likely a key factor shaping the diversity and composition of microbial communities found in the vertebrate gut.” (10)
HCL helps maintain a very acidic environment in the digestive system, making it difficult for dangerous microbes to survive. (11) Gastric acid acts as a barrier against harmful microorganisms that can make their way into your gut. We need gastric acid to protect us against developing various types of yeast, fungal and bacterial infections.
Some studies suggest that HCL may also help break down food allergens into smaller molecules, making them less likely to cause negative reactions and autoimmune responses. HCL is also helpful for preventing leaky gut syndrome because it’s needed in proper amounts (with pepsin) to digest proteins.
If you’re deficient in hydrochloric acid, over time small particles may not be fully broken down, leading them to cause damage to the lining of your intestines (also called intestinal permeability) ,which triggers autoimmune reactions and widespread symptoms. Certain studies have also found a correlation between low stomach acidity and increased infection by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), which contributes to ulcers.
3. Defends Against Candida
An overgrowth of fungus and yeast, called candida, can develop when the pH in the stomach is too alkaline and not acidic enough. (12) Candida overgrowth syndrome, or COS, is the term used when candida has grown out of control in your body. It can spread through the intestines and also to other parts of the body, including the genitals, mouth and toenails. Candida symptoms range considerably from person to person but can include exhaustion, cravings, weight gain, fluid retention and brain fog. A plethora of healthy bacteria in the gut and a properly functioning immune system are essential when fighting this stubborn infection.
4. Supports Skin Health
Believe it or not, struggling with common skin issues like rosacea, acne, eczema and dermatitis has been linked to low stomach acid production and increased secretion of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the gastric lining. (13)
What can hydrochloric acid do for your skin? Some research has found that supplementing with hydrochloric acid and B vitamins may help reduce inflammatory skin symptoms like rosacea and redness in people with low stomach acid. Research suggests there is also a link between SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) and rosacea. (14) SIBO can occur due to low stomach aid because this allows pathogenic bacteria that would normally be killed in the stomach to reproduce in the small intestine where they shouldn’t survive. This increases inflammation that leads to skin being overly sensitive and easily irritated.
5. Helps with Nutrient Absorption (Especially Protein and Vitamin B12)
In addition to contributing to leaky gut, the inability to break down protein foods into useable amino acids can lead to deficiencies and widespread problems. This may contribute to symptoms like fatigue, mood-related problems, poor skin health, hair loss and much more.
HCL also facilitates absorption of other micronutrients, including vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, selenium and boron. (15) Vitamin B12 is only properly absorbed in a highly acidic stomach, so low stomach acid can contribute to vitamin B12 deficiency. In fact, this is why people using proton pump inhibitors are known to be at an increased risk of having very low vitamin B12 levels. (16) Because it can interfere with absorption of essential minerals, lack or suppression of HCL has been associated with increase in osteoporosis and bone fractures. (17)
Tips to Improve Production
Certain foods and lifestyle habits can help balance production of HCL and limit symptoms like acid reflux. Below are foods to incorporate into your diet and other tips to overcome problems related to insufficient stomach acid:
1. Take Apple Cider Vinegar Before Meals
One of the best foods for balancing the pH in your stomach is apple cider vinegar. I recommend taking about one to two teaspoons of high-quality ACV (the raw, fermented kind) mixed with a bit of water right before you eat your main meals. Start with a smaller amount and work your way up as needed.
Apple cider vinegar is beneficial because it has a very low pH and is highly acidic, so it mimics some of the effects of gastric juices. If taking ACV helps alleviate your symptoms, such as heartburn and bloating, consider this a sign that you’re likely dealing with low HCL production.
2. Reduce Processed Foods That Worsen Symptoms
Ultimately the goal is to restore your body’s ability to produce the right amount of HCL (not too much or too little). Reducing inflammation and removing highly processed foods from your diet can help. Try following this acid reflux diet to support overall gut health:
- Consume high-quality proteins and healthy fats in moderate amounts, rather than eating large portions. Avoid fried foods, fast food and creamy/oily dressings that may be hard to break down.
- Eat a variety of cooked and raw vegetables. Try including some with every meal to help increase your intake of magnesium, potassium, fiber and antioxidants.
- Avoid processed foods, refined grains, added sugars, too much alcohol or caffeine, and foods with additives.
- Test your reaction to removing foods that may make heartburn symptoms worse, like chocolate, spicy foods, tomatoes, onions, mint, dairy products and citrus fruits. You may be able to reintroduce these foods after some time.
- Consume enough electrolytes via real sea salt, fruits and veggies, and drinking enough water.
- Eat probiotic foods daily, including fermented dairy (if tolerated), sauerkraut, kimchi or kombucha.
- If you experience various GI symptoms that lead to bloating, belching, etc., you might also consider trying an elimination diet or low FODMAP diet.
3. Change Your Eating Habits
- Don’t drink large amounts of water or fluids with meals or just prior to eating since this can dilute stomach acid.
- Eat smaller meals throughout the day rather than one to two big meals.
- Don’t eat very large amounts of fat all at once; spread your intake of healthy fats throughout the day.
- Eat mindfully, take your time and chew foods thoroughly.
- Drink ginger tea to soothe your stomach, or use ginger essential oil.
- Do not eat close to your bedtime. Give yourself enough time to digest before laying down by eating about three or more hours before bed.
4. Exercise and Manage Stress
- Exercise helps reduce inflammation, brings blood flow to the digestive organs and can be used to manage stress. Try to exercise daily for at least 30–60 minutes.
- High amounts of stress can lower HCL levels, so do your best to keep stress levels under control. Try activities like yoga, meditation, movement/exercise, journaling, using essential oils, acupuncture, massage and deep breathing exercises.
- Get enough sleep, about seven to eight hours or more per night. Sleep deprivation can increase stress hormones, lead to cravings for unhealthy foods and worsen most digestive issues.
- Don’t try any crash diet or fad diet that causes extreme calorie restriction. This can reduce your production of stomach acid and contribute to widespread GI issues.
- Don’t stress your body by smoking, using recreational drugs or drinking high amounts of alcohol.
In many cultures, a traditional way to improve HCL/stomach acid production was through taking digestive bitters, especially those containing apple cider vinegar and herbs. Stress reduction is also considered an important step in holistically treating stomach acid imbalances.
In Ayurveda, a traditional system of medicine that originated in India thousands of years ago, low stomach and and GI problems like acid reflux/heartburn are caused by excessive “heat” in the body and too much “pitta” energy. It’s recommended that to balance stomach acid, one should eat more cooling, soothing foods.
Foods that are said to make stomach acid problems worse in an Ayurvedic diet include citrus juices, tomatoes, chilies, onions, garlic, alcohol, fried foods and caffeine. Foods that can help balance stomach juices include those that are cold, astringent and bitter. For example, peppermint tea and other herbal teas, pomegranate juice, watermelon, split moong dal, green leafy vegetables, banana, cucumbers, and chilled milk are all recommended. Stress reduction, sleep, massage, yoga and meditation are also encouraged to soothe an inflamed stomach. Additionally, herbs like holy basil, licorice, coriander and amla are used to reduce stress and normalize acid production. (18)
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), stress is considered the major culprit of digestive dysfunction. Acupuncture is recommended as a natural treatment for various digestive disorders and symptoms, including acid reflux, gastritis, food allergies, ulcers, irritable bowel and colitis. That’s because it’s said to inhibit stimulation of cranial nerves that cause abnormal stomach secretions, changes in gastric fluids and stomach muscle contractions. Acupuncture, a healthy diet, herbs, tai chi and stress management are all encouraged to improve “chi” (energy flow). These practices help the digestive organs (gallbladder, pancreas, liver and spleen) aid the stomach in breaking down food and reduce pressure that causes digestive pains. (19)
Supplements and Dosage
What are HCL supplements, and should you take them? If you have low stomach acid, taking an HCL supplement that also contains pepsin can be very helpful, especially if you seem to struggle with digesting protein. HCL with pepsin can be taken on a regular basis to help heal your GI tract, reduce symptoms like acid reflux and overall support digestive health.
Betaine hydrochloride is one type of supplement that can be a source of hydrochloric acid for people who have low stomach acid production (hypochlorhydria). (20) While this supplement can be hugely beneficial for many people, it shouldn’t be taken by people with active ulcers or who are taking steroids, pain medications, or anti-inflammatory drugs. HCL supplements are also not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women. (21)
- It’s best to start using HCL supplements while you’re under the care of a physician. Once you and your doctor determine how you react to HCL supplements, you can adjust your dosage accordingly.
- Most people can benefit from taking HCL with pepsin in doses of one 650-milligram pill prior to each meal. You can add additional pills as necessary to keep uncomfortable symptoms at bay.
- Start with a low dose, usually about one capsule with your biggest meal of the day. HCL with pepsin is most beneficial when you take it before eating a meal that contains protein.
- The ideal dosage of HCL varies a lot from person to person. Some people need only one capsule per day to feel better, while others may need to take much higher doses (up to six or nine capsules per day) for their symptoms to really improve. If you experience a feeling of warmness in your stomach after supplementing with HCL, this means you’re taking enough and may even need to decrease your dosage.
- Ideally, you will not need to take HCL supplements for an extended period of time, since hopefully your body adjusts and begins to produce the right amount. If your symptoms improve within several weeks or months, consider lowering your dose gradually as you wean yourself off.
One thing to note is that hydrochloric acid is not the same thing as hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid (also called hyaluronan) is an acid that mostly benefits skin and joint health. It’s a clear substance that’s produced by the body naturally and found in the greatest concentrations in the skin, joints, eye sockets and in other tissues. It can be found in pricey anti-aging skin serums, joint-supporting formulas, cold sore treatments, eye drops and lip balms. Because HA is involved in slowing down collagen loss and reducing fluid or water loss, it helps improve joint lubrication, reduce pain, and treat various problems of the eyes and mouth.
HCL acid has been used for centuries by chemists and scientists for a variety of purposes. It was first discovered by the alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan around the year 800. Historically, hydrochloric acid was referred to as muriatic acid, which it is still occasionally called.
As mentioned above, hydrochloric acid is not only produced naturally within the digestives system, but it’s also a synthetically made chemical compound that is used in many laboratory and industrial settings.
What is hydrochloric acid used for in everyday life? Some of the most common uses of HCL include helping to make: (22)
- Chlorides, fertilizers and dyes
- Electroplating and batteries
- Tin, steel, plastic, and other construction materials and metal products
- Aluminum etching, rust removal and metal cleaning
- Materials used in the photography industry, such as flash bulbs, inks and toners
- Textiles and leather
- Agricultural products
- To create calcium chloride, a type of salt used to deice roads
- Cleaning and bleaching products and laundry and dishwashing soaps
- Chemicals used to treat pools and hot tubs
- As a catalyst and solvent in organic syntheses in lab settings
- In the food industry HCL is used as an additive to stabilize milk, cottage cheese, dried egg products, ketchup, canned goods, bottled sauces, soft drinks, cereals and other processed food. It is also used to help form sugar and gelatin, reduce spoilage, and enhance texture or flavor. One common use in the food production industry is hydrolyzing starch and proteins in the preparation of various food products that need to be shelf-stable.
How is HCL made for industrial use? The most basic thing to understand about hydrochloric acid’s formula is that hydrochloric acid is the aqueous (water-based) solution of hydrogen chloride (HCI) gas. In other words, it is formed by dissolving hydrogen chloride in water in order to make a strong acid that has corrosive properties. (23) Something that is “corrosive” has the ability to damage or burn whatever it touches.
Hydrogen chloride also forms corrosive hydrochloric acid when it comes into contact with human body tissues, including the skin. It’s estimated that about 90 percent of hydrochloric acid is a byproduct from controlled chemical interactions, a processed called chlorination. This process involves chlorinated solvents, fluorocarbons, isocyanates, organics, magnesium and vinyl chloride. This is a preferred method for producing a very pure HCL product.
Is HCL a strong or weak acid? Compared to other common acids, like vinegar or lemon juice, for example, HCL is very strong. Hydrogen chloride that is used to make HCL is considered a highly toxic, colorless gas. It produces white fumes on contact with moisture and humidity, which can be very dangerous to inhale. HCI fumes can cause coughing, choking, and inflammation of the nose, throat and upper respiratory tract. Upon contacting skin, HCI can also cause redness, pain, severe burns and even permanent eye damage.
Risks and Side Effects
If you come across HCL that is used in chemical/industrial settings, taking precaution is extremely important. What are side effects of hydrochloric acid that you should be aware of? First off, hydrochloric acid must be handled very carefully because it is a highly corrosive and sometimes toxic acid. Hydrochloric acid also has a distinctive, very pungent smell that can be off-putting and irritate the inside of the nose.
Can hydrochloric acid burn you? Yes, it can. It can also cause damage to the eyes, nose, throat, intestines and other organs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not classified hydrochloric acid as a carcinogenic agent, yet it can be dangerous when not handled properly. The EPA considers hydrochloric acid to be a toxic substance and recommends protecting yourself when handling HCL by using equipment such as latex gloves, protective eye goggles, and chemical-resistant clothing and shoes.
Potential side effects of contact with hydrochloric acid can include:
- Corrosion to the eyes, skin and mucous membranes. It’s capable of causing severe burns, ulceration and scarring in humans.
- When inhaled, damage to the nose and respiratory tract. This can include irritation and inflammation of the nasal passageways and trouble breathing.
- Damage to the eyes, sometimes which can be permanent and affect vision.
- Pulmonary edema.
- Upon oral exposure, corrosion of the mucous membranes, esophagus and stomach
- Gastritis, chronic bronchitis, dermatitis and photosensitization.
- Dental discoloration and erosion of the teeth.
According to the FDA, even though some foods and beverages contain small amounts of hydrochloric acid, these small amounts are “neutralized and buffered during ingestion and digestion, or after absorption,” which means they are not believed to be dangerous.
What do you do if you get hydrochloric acid on your skin? If you accidentally get HCL or another strong acid on your skin, immediately wash the area well with water and soap. The acid will interact with oils on your skin to produce a soapy feeling, so keep washing until the feeling is gone.
Where should hydrochloric acid be stored? HCL is reactive and corrosive product, so it cannot be stored in certain types of containers without ruining them. It should not be stored in metal containers, but some types of plastic containers (like those made with PVC, or polyvinyl chloride) can usually withstand exposure to HCL.
- Hydrochloric acid (HCL) is a natural component of our gastric juices/gastric acid. It it produced by cells in our stomach and has a number of important roles in digestion processes and immune system support.
- It aids in digestion, fights heartburn and acid reflux, has antimicrobial effects, protects against leaky gut, defends against candida, supports skin health, and helps with nutrient absorption.
- HCL is also made synthetically to be used in many laboratory and industrial settings. Industrial uses of HCL include making cleaners, steel, photography supplies, textiles, rubber and much more.
- There are many reasons you may be under-producing HCL (gastric juices). Some causes of low stomach acid include regularly taking antacids in order to reduce heartburn symptoms, eating a poor diet that includes lots of processed foods, chronic stress, taking antibiotics frequently, lack of physical activity, alcoholism, smoking, aging, food allergies, eating disorders and pregnancy.
- Steps to take in order to make the right amount of HCL (not too much or too little) are eating an anti-inflammatory/acid reflux diet, exercising, managing stress, getting enough sleep and avoiding unnecessary medications/supplements that lower stomach acid.