Stomach acid is essential to good digestion. Without enough stomach acid our food is not properly broken down and can cause everything from GERD to Leaky Gut to Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). In this article, I’m going to provide 10 ways to naturally stimulate digestive fire (aka production of stomach acid) that are simple, inexpensive, and easy to incorporate into your every day routine.
Of course, one of the easiest ways to increase stomach acid is to take a supplement called Betaine HCL. These pills are readily available on the market and are one of the more inexpensive supplements. That being said, when you’re taking 5-10 with every meal, the cost can still add up.
Is cost the real issue here though? What about having to remember to take said pills with every meal? What about kick-starting your sluggish digestive system in the rear and saying “Get a move on lazy bones?” Well that’s where the concept of “digestive fire” comes in.
The term “digestive fire” comes from Chinese medicine and is actually referring to stomach acid and the support and production of it.
Most countries have traditions and traditional foods which help to support and stimulate digestion, but here in the grand “melting pot” those techniques and words of wisdom have gotten brushed aside or lost altogether. The good thing about technology and access to foods from around the world, is that we now can share that wisdom with one another and pick and choose what works for each of us on an individual basis.
1) Drink your 8 glasses a day, just not with meals
According to Chinese medicine, drinking water and other liquids, especially cold liquids, quells digestive fire. The thinking is that the water dilutes the stomach acid, which quite frankly, makes sense. If you find that you need liquid during a meal, try converting to broth, hot tea or room temperature kombucha and sip it as infrequently as possible.
This takes some time to adjust to, and if a meal is salty, can be impossible. However, if you know that you are going to have a difficult to digest meal (say steak and potatoes), try to drink a large quantity of water an hour or more before your meal, so that your level of thirst will be lower.
2) Iron Chef 2013: Russians vs Koreans-The cabbage ferment-off!
Although many of us know that eating sauerkraut both before, and during a meal can aide in digestion, if you have low stomach acid you may want to give Kimchi a try. This is the Korean take on sauerkraut and is typically made by fermenting Napa cabbage with garlic and spices such as red hot chili pepper paste or powder. Sometimes rice paste and fish sauce are added as well.
Just like sauerkraut is an acquired taste, so is kimchi. Because larger chunks of cabbage are used and the chili pepper lends a red tint to the dish, it can be off-putting at first. And, like sauerkraut, it has a smell associated with it that you’ll either like or dislike (you may want to start with a brand that does NOT use fish sauce as this will make the transition easier). That being said, once you find a brand you like, Kimchi is addicting. Honestly, at first you may have to plug your nose to get a teaspoon down with your meal, but soon after you’ll be eating an entire jar! If your body needs kimchi, it will crave it and you won’t have any choice but to fall in love with it!
3) Chew Your Food!
This seems simple enough, but whether you’ve been in the military, have a limited time for meals, or are a mother who never gets a hot meal, and wolfs down whatever leftovers she can while throwing dishes in the dishwasher, taking time to chew your food matters. Old habits die hard, and even if it was 20 years ago that you learned to eat in a hurry, it’s hard to make yourself slow down and not only enjoy and pay attention to what’s going down the hatch, but to actually chew it in the process.
I know that personally I have physical limitations when it comes to chewing. Because of serious TMJ, and eruption of certain teeth, my bite has left me with only 3 teeth that actually touch in my entire mouth! This makes chewing a real job. Add the pain from my jaw to that and I’ve become very good at just swallowing my food rather than going through the hassle of actually chewing it. Just the other day I was thinking about when most of my intestinal issues started and it was a couple of years after my bite changed. Could it be that taxing my system with food particles that were too large, and not engaging the enzymes that are released during chewing, that ultimately was a factor in now being the not-so-proud owner of a leaky gut? I can’t answer that question but it’s made me think long and hard about getting braces (again).
4) Eat until 80% full
When the stomach is too full it has the same issue as when too much liquid is consumed, it dilutes the stomach acid. Eating slowly, thoroughly chewing your food, and paying attention to just how full you really are, all play a part in digestive fire.
As Jo Robinson explains in her book, Eating On The Wild Side, humans used to eat a lot of very bitter foods. Wild apples were the size of cherries and weren’t sweet like they are today. Fruits of all kinds were smaller and more bitter, yet full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Our fruits of today have been selected and bred for their high starch and sugar content, and aptly so, as not many people would choose bitter over sweet! The truth is though, that bitter food is typically not only extremely healthy, it also helps to fan the flame of our digestive fire. Foods such as dandelion root tea and some of the Chinese herbs, can be pretty difficult to get down.
That’s why I like my little spray tube of “bitters” (see it here). It’s got dandelion root, fennel seed (have you ever seen the colorful looking seeds that are offered at Indian restaurants? They’re digestive aides, one of which is fennel), burdock root, angelica root and the list goes on. It does taste very bitter, but just a couple of sprays on the tongue before, during, or after a meal helps to stimulate one’s own stomach acid and digestive enzymes.
I appreciate that I can use this spray anytime, as I often forget to take my betaine HCL pills at the very start of the meal. Additionally, when a sugar craving hits hard, I can spray bitters on my tongue and it really helps to curb the craving!
6) Sit down to eat
I know this seems like a bit of a no-brainer, but if you’re like me eating while standing up, on the computer, or in the car is not the exception, it’s the norm! Taking the time to sit down and concentrate on eating is a requirement if you want to put most of the aforementioned strategies into place.
[heading]Before Meal Strategies[/heading]
7) Bone Broth
Bone broth is not only nourishing, it’s also extremely soothing to the digestive system. Warm bone broth gently wakes up the digestive system, gently stoking it’s fire. I often pour a bit of the liquid from my sauerkraut into my already warmed-up broth. It not only provides enough salt so that I don’t generally have to add more (although I don’t worry about salt. I eat as much as my body tells me to), it is also a good way to disguise sauerkraut while still getting the benefits. Just don’t add it while the broth is heating up or the good bacteria will be destroyed. I generally keep my Crock-Pot bubbling with broth so it’s already hot and ready to go, ladle some into my coffee mug, top it with sauerkraut juice and sip away. It is best to consume the broth 20-30 minutes before a meal (see below for explanation).
8) Apple Cider Vinegar
Drinking a teaspoon or two or apple cider vinegar in as little water as you can stand (because we do not want to dilute the fire before it’s started) about 10-20 minutes before consuming a meal can give your stomach a heads up that it’s time to start producing acid.
9) Lemon water
Can’t handle the apple cider vinegar? Try squeezing half a lemon into some warm water. It can have the same effect as the apple cider vinegar, and is also very helpful when it comes to stabilizing blood sugar.
Like bone broth, kombucha helps ready the digestive system for food. Drinking a small glass 20-30 minutes before each meal helps the stomach to relax and gets the production of stomach acid up and running.
How to test to see if you are producing enough stomach acid
1. Purchase Betaine HCL pills such as these. They are also readily available anywhere that sells supplements.
2. With your first meal, take 1 pill with the first bite. If a burning sensation in your stomach, up towards your chest occurs, then you don’t need any help. Your stomach acid levels are fine.
3. If you felt nothing (so no burning sensation), at the next meal, take 2 pills with your first bite of food. Again, if a burning sensation occurs, stop. You likely could use a few bitters, but your stomach acid level is still functioning quite well.
4. If you still feel nothing, at the next meal you will take 3 pills with your first bite of food. Again, if a burning sensation occurs, stop. This means that your dose per meal is 2 pills. Take two pills with each meal for a week or two and then re-test.
If you felt nothing with 3 pills, continue on, adding an additional pill with each meal until you reach 10 pills or a burning sensation appears. Once the burning sensation occurs, you always subtract 1 pill and this is your dose.
If you feel nothing by 10 pills then your stomach acid is very low, and more pills won’t necessarily help. I highly recommend that you see a Naturopath or Integrative Medicine Specialist at this time to help you come up with a strategy. In the meantime take 4-5 pills with each meal. Re-testing each week or two.
Medical Disclaimer: The medical information on this site is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. Please consult your health care provider before making any health care decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition.
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