Acid & Acidity are not the same things!
Here's everything you ever need to know about acidity and bloating.
In my practice as an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, one of the most common concerns I come across are Acid Reflux and Bloating; most often, happening simultaneously for most people. I also hear things like - "eating fruit in the morning gives me acidity", "won't drinking orange juice first thing cause acidity?", "I can't have lemon water because I struggle with acidity."; so I thought to address the issue with this article.
Starting with the basic 'basics' of course -
What is the Stomach & how does it work?
It is a hollow muscular organ, located on the left side of the upper abdomen. On the upper end, it is connected with the oesophagus and has a valve like opening called the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES), and at the bottom is it connected to the small intestine via the Pyloric Sphincter. All of us were made to study the digestive system as kids, but the whole Sphincter thing wasn't really taught (or maybe I was too busy eating other people's tiffins in the Biology class 😬 to notice back then). So the stomach is not open at both ends, the Sphincter -with a valve like function, keeps it closed, and opens up only to allow the movement of food into the stomach from the oesophagus and from the stomach to the small intestine for further processing, as and when required. The walls of this organ are lined with glands that produce acid to kill the bacteria in our food, and to breakdown and churn the food to convert it to a sludge called Chyme, in addition to other enzymes.
Chyme is the pulpy acidic fluid, consisting of gastric juices and partially digested food, which passes from the stomach to the small intestine, for absorption of nutrients.
Stomach acid is strong enough to dissolve metal, at a pH between 1.5 to 3.5, and in volumes of about 20 ml to 100 ml, varying from person to person.
This acid my friends, is your Best Friend! A healthy stomach will have a pH between 1.5 to 2.5, which is like battery grade acid.
What is Acid Reflux/ Acidity?
Now, acid reflux or acidity, is simply a condition when the highly acidic chyme moves back into the oesophagus, instead of going down to the small intestine, due to the malfunctioning of LES, also known as heartburn. The lining of the stomach is adapted to protect it from high levels of acid but the lining of the oesophagus is not.
A person suffers from a condition called GERD if they experience acid reflux more than twice a week.
Common Causes of Acid Reflux/ Acidity?
I hope by now, we can fairly agree to the point that acidic foods do not cause acidity! of course, if you already have acidity right now then don't have acidic foods, but that does not mean that acidic foods are the 'cause' of acidity. We have established that acidity is caused by the malfunction of LES, so let's look at what really causes the Sphincter to malfunction.
Smoking - all the smokers, that I have met, struggle with acidity and are found popping antacids frequently. The nicotine from tobacco relaxes the LES which allows the stomach acids and chyme to move up in the oesophagus. So even if you are a passive smoker or eat nicotine gums or smoke a hookah or vape, it all delivers the same amount of nicotine as smoking cigarettes and causes acid reflux conditions.
Alcohol - does pretty much the same thing as nicotine; it relaxes the LES, allowing the valve the stay open which leaks the contents of the stomach into the oesophagus. Now, for occasional drinkers, things are not as bad, if you limit to just one or two drinks, do not lie down for at least 2-3 hours after drinking, and eat something before putting alcohol in your system.
Greasy, spicy and fatty food - fatty foods stimulate the release of the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK). This hormone may also relax the LES and cause acid reflux. In addition, CCK encourages food to stay in the stomach longer so it can be better digested. Also spicy foods contain a compound called capsaicin, which may slow the rate of digestion. This means food will sit in the stomach longer, sadly, this may also increase the risk of acid reflux, which can cause heartburn. This does not apply to good fats like omega 3s and omega 6s, here we are talking about trans fats and saturated fats, and overall dense meals with high fat content.
Caffeinated Drinks, Coffee, Chocolates - sadly, all of our favourite things seem to hinder the functioning of the sphincter and cause acidity. The key here is moderation and not consuming any of these on an empty stomach.
Overeating - if you are going to stuff your stomach to the brim, no valve in the world will be able to hold it all in, let alone the poor LES. So please stop being gluttonous, enjoy your food, eat slowly, and keep 1/4th of your stomach empty.
Drugs - asprin, ibuprofin, anti-histamines, blood-pressure medications, muscle relaxers all mess with the functioning of the LES.
Mint - varieties of mint like peppermint and spearmint are known to irritate the lining of the oesophagus. So those who chew gum frequently or consume peppermint/ spearmint tea everyday are at a higher risk of being susceptible to acid reflux.
Obesity - being obese causes various health issues and acid reflux is one of them. The extra fat and weight around your belly increases the pressure on your abdomen, squeezing the contents of your stomach to travel upwards and leak into the oesophagus.
Pregnancy - yes, pregnancy causes acidity; your baby pushing things up all the time trying to make space for itself in your abdomen, is a very real cause of acidity. Also, the hormonal changes cause the muscles of the oesophagus to relax frequently. You can't do much about it except for eating small and frequent meals and by avoiding all of the above.
Why low levels of Stomach Acid are bad for your health?
The acid levels in our stomach keep fluctuating through the day. But, if your stomach acids are low, then the food that you eat doesn't break down properly, sitting and fermenting in your system; which in turn causes bloating, burping, gas/ flatulence, indigestion, nausea, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancers and even hair loss (yes, that's a bigger problem). With time, if this continues, the body absorbs lesser and lesser nutrients from food leading to malnutrition and a myriad of diseases.
We never give the stomach acid its true credit and keep popping antacids like there's no tomorrow! But there is a tomorrow and on that 'tomorrow' you are going to be a much sicker person than today.
How to maintain healthy stomach acid levels?
Repeating myself here - Stomach acid is your Best Friend! Take good care of it and it will save you from developing health complications, by killing harmful bacteria in the food and breaking down food well using enzymes. Here's how you can maintain healthy stomach acid levels -
Avoid Processed Foods - eat real whole foods and not food like substances laden with chemicals. Having a balanced diet of whole foods is crucial to keeping the stomach healthy and functioning well.
Chew your food - Sounds simple yet soooo important! If you are rushing through your meals in your fast-paced corporate lifestyle you are really harming your digestive health. Take small bites and chew well.
Eat fermented foods - next to the stomach acid, oh no! even before that; your first Best Friend are the bacteria that live in your gut and do literally everything from supporting digestion to mental health. Every culture is found to have some or the other kind of fermented food in their daily meals. Incorporate these in your diet and take care of your gut microbiome.
Review your lifestyle - drink water, sleep well, move your body and evaluate your emotional health as to why do you really need alcohol and cigarettes to feel good. Also, lose that belly fat please.
Eat Ginger & Turmeric - anti-inflammatory foods should be your go-to medicines, not pharmaceutical drugs. Especially ginger and turmeric. They not only help maintain healthy stomach acid levels but also reduce inflammation and indigestion caused by low stomach acid.
We need to stop this vicious cycle of acid reflux - antacids - low stomach acid - bloating - more meds - acidity... and evaluate our lifestyles before questioning healthy whole foods and eliminating those from our lives and diets. We also must stop normalising acidity and bloating; they are the root cause and symptoms of several other severe diseases.
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