If you read the article from last week on how your brain and mouth kick off the process of digestion, you’re probably wondering what happens next.
Digestion is a complex process. Yes, the stomach is an important component, but there’s a lot that happens to your food both before it ever gets there. Here’s a recap of what we’ve covered so far:
Step 1: The Brain
The brain is a critical part of the digestive process. The input your brain receives triggers it to signal the rest of your digestive system to get ready for food. But it isn’t as automatic as you think. If you’re stressed, upset, or distracted, your brain can get left out of the picture, creating digestive issues from the very start. But there are things you can do to get your brain on board for your next meal.
Step 2: The Mouth
The mouth gets two important digestive processes started: mechanical digestion and chemical digestion. When you chew your food, your teeth break and tear it into tiny pieces that are easier to digest. And while you chew, your salivary enzymes start breaking down the chemical components of your food so they can be absorbed by the body. If either of these processes go awry, you will find yourself on the road to digestive issues before you even swallow.
This week we’re going to cover the next two steps on your digestive journey: your esophagus and your stomach.
What happens to your food when you swallow?
When you’re done chewing your food it’s ready for its trip down to your stomach. Fortunately, you get to decide when the food goes down. There is a valve that separates your mouth and your throat called the upper esophageal sphincter. This ring of muscle opens when you swallow, allowing your food to start the journey downward.
When the food (now called a bolus) enters your esophagus, the esophageal muscles start moving the food down toward your stomach with a process called peristalsis. When the bolus gets to the bottom of your esophagus it has to pass through the lower esophageal sphincter in order to enter the stomach.
It’s not uncommon for people to have issues with this sphincter. And honestly, it’s not even a real sphincter. It’s a portion of your diaphragm muscle (the one that assists with breathing). Sometimes this muscle relaxes or shifts. When this happens, stomach acid can creep up from the stomach into the esophagus.
Stomach acid isn’t a bad thing (more on that in a minute), but your esophagus is not designed to deal with the acidity. So if stomach acid travels north from your stomach, you can end up with acid reflux and that can be painful!
Better Digestion Tip #1: Take care of your lower esophageal sphincter
Most everyone deals with heartburn (acid reflux) from time to time. But if your issues are ongoing, you can end up with esophageal damage and a condition called GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease).
Many people turn to over-the-counter antacid medications to cool the burn. But this isn’t the best approach. Stomach acid isn’t the problem. The problem is that the valve that keeps the acid in your stomach isn’t doing its job.
Your best bet is to figure out which foods trigger reflux for you, add in some soothing therapies (like aloe vera juice), and make sure your stomach is doing its job.
Stomach Acid is Your Friend
Stomach acid gets a bad rap. And that’s understandable. If you suffer from reflux or GERD, stomach acid causes you pain. So many people assume they have too much stomach acid. Then they turn to antacid mediation or PPIs (proton pump inhibitors) to cool the burn.
But the honest truth is that you are much more likely to have too little stomach acid than too much. Yes, you read that right. A common cause of reflux is not having enough stomach acid. Let’s break down what happens in the stomach and I’ll explain what I mean.
When food enters your stomach the process of digestion continues — both mechanically and chemically. The chemical part of the process is HCL (hydrochloric acid). Yes, HCL can give you heartburn. But only when it creeps up into the esophagus where it doesn’t belong.
But your stomach is fully equipped to handle the acidity of HCL because the lining is coated with a protective mucus. As long as your stomach lining is healthy and the HCL stays where it belongs, it doesn’t cause you any problems. In fact, you NEED it.
In order for your body to break down your food and properly absorb the nutrients, your stomach needs to be at a very low pH level — or very acidic. Think about what happens in the movies when acid is poured on something organic. It breaks it down very efficiently. And that’s just what you need in your stomach too.
At the bottom end of your stomach lies the pyloric sphincter. This ring of muscle is a bit like a nightclub bouncer. It’s not going to let anything through the door unless it meets certain conditions. And in order for the digested food to exit the stomach and move onto the next phase of digestion, it needs to be very acidic. If the acidity level doesn’t meet the standard, the pyloric sphincter won’t let it pass. So then the food just sits in your stomach… and ferments.
This can also be a trigger for reflux. When food ferments in your stomach, it creates gas. And this gas can push the lower esophageal sphincter open, allowing HCL to go upward into your esophagus. For many people who suffer from heartburn, they don’t have too much stomach acid. The stomach isn’t acidic enough. So you actually need MORE stomach acid — enough so that your food (now called chyme) can exit the stomach and keep working its way through the digestive system.
Not sure if you’re low on stomach acid? Here are some common signs of low HCL:
😕 Burping after meals
😕 Food sits in your stomach for too long
😕 Chronic iron/B12 deficiency
😕 Nausea after supplements
😕 Undigested food in stool
😕 Bloating after eating protein
There are risk factors of low HCL including long-term use of PPIs or NSAID pain relievers, chronic stress, being 65 years old or older, and SIBO to name a few. If you have any of the above symptoms and one or more of these risk factors, it’s a good time to talk to your practitioner. You can book a consultation with me by clicking the button at the end of this article.
Better Digestion Tip #2: Boost your HCL naturally
There are a variety of ways to increase your HCL production. Yes, there are supplements you can take. But make sure to talk with your practitioner before you start. If you already have damage from reflux, an HCL supplement can cause irritation and pain. It’s important to work with a practitioner (like me) to heal the area first.
But you can take some action now to boost your HCL naturally and improve your digestion:
💡 Drink ACV (apple cider vinegar)
ACV has a number of uses in natural health (including lowering blood sugar). But one of my favorite uses is as a pre-meal tonic. ACV improves digestion and encourages your body to produce HCL.
Before each meal, mix a tablespoon or two of raw, unfiltered ACV into a glass of water and sip it. It may not be the most delicious drink you’ve ever had, but it can do wonders to improve your digestion. A word of caution though — vinegar can damage tooth enamel. I recommend sipping this drink with a straw and avoiding contact with your teeth as much as possible.
💡 Avoid processed foods
Processed foods don’t do us any favors. They cause weight gain, trigger inflammation, and interfere with blood sugar balance. But they can also affect digestion. These foods can cause inflammation in your stomach and interfere with HCL production.
💡 Don’t drown your food
Avoid drinking excessive amounts while you eat. Even something as healthy as water can, well, water down your stomach acid. It’s fine to drink a little with your meals. But it’s best to do most of your hydrating away from mealtime.
Better Digestion Tip #3: Get help if you need it
If you’re having digestive issues — from reflux to diarrhea and everything in between — it’s hard to pinpoint the cause on your own. Taking the suggestions you’ll find in these articles can help. But if your stomach issues are interfering with your quality of life, it’s time to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
That’s where I come in. I don’t just figure out how to mask your symptoms. I want you to feel better because you ARE better. And that takes digging down to the root cause of your digestive problem. If you’re ready to find real answers and real relief, let’s talk.