Constipation can be uncomfortable or downright painful if left untreated. You may experience few bowel movements, the sensation that everything isn’t coming out, small and hard stools, a swollen belly, pain or throwing up.
But you’re not alone – an estimated 42 million Americans suffer from constipation, making it the most common gastrointestinal problem in the United States.
When you experience constipation, it may seem like a good idea to reach for fast relief like a stool softener or other common constipation remedies such as prune juice – but these are usually just a quick fix that doesn’t solve the underlying cause.
If you want long-term constipation relief it’s a good idea to get to the root of what’s causing your chronic constipation.
There are a number of causes of constipation, which we are going to address in throughout this six-part article series. First, we are going to take a closer look at low hydrochloric acid levels in the stomach – an often-overlooked cause of constipation.
What Causes Constipation – Part 1: Low Hydrochloric Acid
Your stomach acid is made up of three parts: hydrochloric acid (HCl), potassium chloride (KCl), and sodium chloride (NaCl). Hydrochloric acid is the primary acid in your stomach and it plays important roles in keeping the digestive tract running smoothly. Often, stomach acid and hydrochloric acid are used interchangeably.
When your body isn’t producing enough hydrochloric acid, it can cause serious and chronic constipation. Also called achlorhydria or hypochlorhydria, low stomach acid can disrupt several important bodily processes.
The Importance of Stomach Acid
Why is stomach acid so important? Stomach acid frequently gets a bad rap because an overabundance can cause heartburn or ulcers, but it’s just as problematic to have low stomach acid. Your stomach acid is involved in many critical roles, including:
- Completely digesting food
- Supporting the immune system
- Encouraging the pancreas and intestines to produce necessary enzymes and bile
- Ensuring good absorption of vitamins and minerals
- Activating pepsinogen – a protein-digesting enzyme
- Helping to kill unwanted bacteria, viruses, and parasites
When your stomach isn’t making enough hydrochloric acid, you can experience an array of unpleasant and sometimes painful symptoms, such as:
- Low back pain
- Poor digestion
- Chronic gut inflammation
- Leaky gut
- Chronic candida
- Elevated stress hormones
- Poor nutrient absorption
If your stomach has low hydrochloric acid levels, you might experience constipation but also nutritional deficiencies, even if you’re eating a healthy diet. This can make identifying your health issues difficult. In fact, low hydrochloric acid is a condition that is often misdiagnosed or overlooked.
Causes of Low Hydrochloric Acid
Low levels of hydrochloric acid can make you constipated and uncomfortable but it can also be responsible for a cascade of health consequences, which is why it’s important to address constipation with techniques that treat the root cause and not just the symptom.
Understanding some of the causes of low hydrochloric acid can give you clues to help you determine if low HCl is causing your constipation. Some causes of low stomach acid include:
- Medications – Some prescriptions and over the counter drugs suppress HCl production.
- Chronic stress – This is when HCl secretion is inhibited by chronic low-grade worry (acute stress may cause overproduction of HCl, which is associated with ulcers).
- Older age – Your body tends to decrease HCl production levels as you get older.
- Vitamin or mineral deficiency – In particular, low zinc and thiamine levels can contribute to insufficient hydrochloric acid levels.
- H. pylori infection – When there’s an overgrowth in the stomach, H. pylori can cause low HCl levels.
- Processed foods and refined sugars – These foods are mineral deficient and cause inflammation of the stomach, which alters your gut microbiome and can reduce stomach acid production.
- Chronic illness – Some chronic illnesses have an increased risk of low HCl production.
- Antacids – Antacids interfere with your acid levels and can be the cause of low HCl production.
If you are experiencing constipation – other related symptoms – and also have any of the above contributors to low hydrochloric acid, you should test yourself for low stomach acid. There are three simple ways you can test your HCl levels at home before you make a trip to the doctor.
How to Test Your Stomach Acid (HCl) at Home
These three easy ways to test for low hydrochloric acid production in your stomach are much cheaper than a conventional HCl test administered by many doctors. Keep in mind a negative test result for these techniques is not an absolute diagnosis. These methods are simply for seeing if your constipation is caused by your stomach’s inability to produce enough stomach acid.
Self-Exam for Low Stomach Acid
A quick method for checking low hydrochloric acid levels is an old homeopathic trick. Take both your hands and find your xiphoid process – the bottom of the sternum where it meets the ribs – marked in red in the image below.
Then, with both hands slide along the rib cage in both directions while pushing in and under your ribs – on your left and right side of your body.
In people experiencing low levels of stomach acid, it’s common for the left side to be more tender than the right side – this area is marked in blue in the image below. It can be so tender it may cause you to jump when you find the right area – if this occurs you likely have low hydrochloric acid levels.
Apple Cider Vinegar for Low Stomach Acid
Another test you can try at home is taking a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar when you experience temporary symptoms after eating, such as indigestion or upset stomach. If your symptoms are relieved after taking apple cider vinegar, that could be a sign of inadequate hydrochloric acid production.
Betaine HCl Test for Low Stomach Acid
The betaine HCl is another at-home test you can use to check for low stomach acid. Take a betaine HCl capsule during or right before your last bite of a meal containing protein and fat. If you experience indigestion or burning, then you have plenty of HCl and shouldn’t take any more of that supplement. But if you don’t experience any burning, your stomach isn’t producing enough hydrochloric acid.
Home Remedies for Constipation Caused by Low Hydrochloric Acid
The best choice of remedy for any individual’s constipation always depends on the underlying cause. If you’ve determined the underlying cause of your constipation may be low stomach acid, here are a couple of changes you can make:
- Add fermented vegetables to your diet
- Reduce processed food consumption
- Increase zinc intake
- Reduce chronic stress in your life, especially at mealtime
- Have a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in warm water before each meal
- Add betaine HCl supplements to your diet
These are a couple of remedies that may give you constipation relief. But if you continue to struggle with constipation, you should see your doctor so you can have a comprehensive diagnosis made as early as possible.
When to See Your Doctor for Constipation
As with many conditions, using temporary fixes that relieve symptoms only prolongs the underlying issue. Waiting to treat your condition can cause complications and make it more difficult to treat. If you are experiencing constipation that lasts longer than a couple of weeks, or if one of the three at-home self-tests for low stomach acid appears positive, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.
There is a myriad of ways to treat low hydrochloric acid levels naturally. By working closely with a holistic physician, you can restore balance to your stomach and relieve uncomfortable and widespread symptoms.
Elena Klimenko, MD, a certified functional medicine physician, will help you choose the right course of action to identify the root cause and relief your unsettled symptoms. Call today to find out more about functional medicine and speak with Dr. Klimenko at 212-696- HEAL(4325).
If you want more information about Functional Medicine, contact us to receive a FREE copy of Dr Klimenko’s E-book.