The upper gastrointestinal system refers to your stomach and your pancreas. This is one of the primary areas of dysfunction in the body and it has one of the highest priorities in the foundations of health. Many dysfunctions in the body, like hormonal imbalances or vitamin and mineral deficiencies, will resolve themselves once the upper gastrointestinal tract has been assessed and treated.
One should not expect to resolve problems further down the digestive system without addressing the stomach acidity.
Signs and symptoms of digestive dysfunction include:
- Belching or gas one hour after a meal
- Heartburn or acid reflux
- Bloating shortly after eating
- Bad breath
- Sense of excess fullness after meals
- Feeling better if you don’t eat
- Sleepy after meals
- Brittle nails that chip, peel or break easily
- B12 deficiency
In order to understand your symptoms, it is important to know what the stomach actually does.
Besides serving as a reservoir for the food that we eat, and for setting the rhythm for the digestive process, the stomach secretes 2-3 litres of important gastric juices every day.
These gastric juices consist of:
- Hydrochloric acid (HCL): This acid is produced in the parietal cells of the stomach and is responsible for the very acidic environment in the stomach (pH of 1-2,5). The purpose of this acidic environment is to prevent anything that does not belong into the body from entering the system (i.e pathogens), to break down large protein molecules from the diet (i.e a steak), and to activate enzymes that also help to break down protein (protein is hard to break down!).
- Pepsinogens: These are precursors of pepsins, the enzymes that actually break down the protein molecules. Pepsinogens must be activated by HCL to be turned into pepsins.
- Intrinsic-Factor (IF): Just like HCL, IF is produced in the parietal cells of the stomach. We need Intrinsic Factor to bind Vitamin B12 (extrinsic factor) so that it can be used by the body.
- Mucus and bicarbonate. Besides the cells that produce the HCl, there are cells in the stomach that produce a protective mucus layer and bicarbonate to buffer the intense acid. This mucus layer is important as it protects the stomach from “digesting itself”.
So how do the symptoms listed above relate to your stomach health?
Belching or gas one hour after a meal. This is a strong indication of digestive dysfunction with either hypochlorhydria or pancreatic insufficiency. When the pancreas is not secreting its pancreatic enzymes into the small intestine, it can lead to the putrefaction of proteins or fermentation of carbohydrates, giving off gas as a by-product. This is often accompanied by bloating in the mid to lower abdomen.
Heartburn or acid reflux. Most people and even physicians believe that heartburn or acid reflux is due to hyperacidity (too much acidity) in the stomach. The first course of action, for most people, is to use an over-the-counter antacid or acid blocker. Based on the information above, it may make sense to you now that having optimal levels of HCL is key for optimal digestion. While most people think symptoms arise as a result of too much HCL in the stomach, this is actually a rarity. Clinical experience testing the pH of patient’s stomachs has shown that very few people who complain of acid reflux or heartburn are hyperacid. Most of the time it has to do with an inappropriate timing of stomach acid secretion leading to increased acid secretion when there is no food in the stomach. This then leads to an irritated and inflamed mucosa.
What’s also very important to understand is that low stomach acid secretion or hypochlorhydria can also damage the mucosa. Hypochlorhydria sets up the ideal environment for an infection by Helicobacter Pylori, a bacterium that is associated with gastric ulcers. Everyone who experiences heartburn or acid reflux should, therefore, rule out H.pylori.
Another cause of heartburn or acid reflux is a weak or sensitive esophageal sphincter. The main reason, in this case, is overeating which causes gastric juices to enter through a stretched esophageal sphincter into the esophagus, which can not handle the acid stomach juices.
Bad breath. This is indicative of bowel toxemia in either the small intestine or large intestine with an overgrowth of bacteria or yeast. Bowel toxemia usually starts with a pre-existing hypochlorhydria. Proteins that are not digested and broken down into amino acids in the stomach form the substrate for bacteria and yeast to proliferate. This produces excess amounts of toxic metabolites which must be detoxified by the liver. If the liver is not functioning optimally or if there is too much toxin accumulation, the toxins can enter the systemic circulation and cause not only bad breath but also brain and nervous system symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, tingling in hands and feet, and headaches, to name a few.
A sense of excess fullness after meals. Low hydrochloric acid levels lead to a decreased efficiency in protein digestion, so the body retains food in the stomach to prolong digestion, which leads to a feeling of excess fullness. Another cause of excess fullness may be the production of gas in the stomach or small intestine, leading to a feeling of being bloated.
You feel better if you skip breakfast and/or if you don’t eat. For many people eating has become an uncomfortable process. This is mainly due to an inflamed gastric mucosa that is irritated by food and digestive juices. Just like heartburn or acid reflux, the pain that some individuals experience with eating is caused by inappropriate secretion of HCL or too little HCL production. Instead of taking an over-the-counter antacid or acid blocker one should find the root cause and maybe rule out an H.Pylori infection or find other causes that lead to an irritated and inflamed mucosa.
Sleepy after meals. Being sleepy after meals is often a sign of blood sugar dysregulation and/or inadequate digestion. When food is not fully broken down, it leaves a heavy amount of food in the digestive system that needs to be digested. The sleepiness is a result of a large amount of energy the body uses up to digest the food in an environment that is lacking the necessary gastric juices and enzymes.
Brittle nails that chip, peel or break easily. This is a sign of a number of nutritional deficiencies: protein, trace minerals, and essential fatty acids. These deficiencies are caused by low stomach acid and pancreatic insufficiency. When the food is not properly digested, the small intestine cannot absorb the nutrients from the food but passes it on to the colon where it is fermented by bacteria instead. The fingernails are composed of structural molecules that are assimilated from the food we eat. Without optimum digestion, we cannot adequately absorb these structural molecules and the fingernails become weak and brittle. Assessing for digestive function and ensuring good quality nutrients in the diet will allow the fingernails to strengthen over time.
B12 deficiency. When the cells in the stomach are damaged, they cannot produce intrinsic factor. Without intrinsic factor, B12 cannot be absorbed and enter systemic circulation, leading to a deficiency and its associated symptoms like weakness, fatigue, lightheadedness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, pale skin, constipation, diarrhea, or a loss of appetite.
Identifying root causes
If you experience one or more of these symptoms you may want to assess your gastrointestinal system. Instead of constantly being frustrated by these annoying symptoms you can heal your gut and feel comfortable in your skin again.
Hypochlorhydria has a number of possible causes that include:
- Sympathetic dominance. When we’re stressed, we are in a sympathetic or “fight or flight” state, which is the exact opposite of the rest and digest mode that we need for digestion. When the parasympathetic nervous system is turned off, because the sympathetic nervous system is at work, there is no acetylcholine that tells the parietal cells to produce HCl.
- Antacid drug use
- Excess sugar and refined foods
- Chronic overeating
- Constant snacking between meals
- Excess carbohydrate and alcohol consumption
- Nutrient deficiencies, especially zinc and thiamin
- H.Pylori infection
In order to get symptoms relief, it is important to start by identifying possible factors that may lead to your gastrointestinal dysfunction. If you suspect an H. Pylori infection or yeast or candida overgrowth you may want to run a comprehensive stool test. I recommend the GI-Map from Diagnostic Solutions.
If you feel overwhelmed by all this information but think you do have a weakened gastrointestinal system contact me. I will help you find and address your root causes, so you get symptom-relief and create long-lasting health.