By Marilee Nelson

Healthy people with strong digestive function do not need more Hydrochloric Acid (HCL or stomach acid). Unfortunately, in today’s world of high stress, fast and processed foods, antibiotic use, prescription, and over the counter drug side effects, many people have a deficient supply of HCL.

Strong, healthy digestive function plays a foundational role in determining a person’s state of wellbeing and health. Digestive function includes normal digestion with adequate levels of HCL and digestive enzymes, assimilation, and elimination. When these are faulty, we may not be aware that these dysfunctions are contributing to many other problems.

Many digestive problems are caused by too little stomach acid. It may seem like there is too much acid because of heartburn, sour stomach, or overall stomach upset, nausea, and pain, but having too little acid can cause exactly the same symptoms as too much acid.

A hydrocloric acid deficiency (lack of adequate HCL) can have many consequences and has been associated with the following:

  • Malnutrition – reduction of absorption of nutrients from foods
  • Iron deficiency anemia, owing to poor iron absorption
  • Osteoporosis, resulting in part from decreased calcium absorption
  • Periodontal disease – receding gums
  • General allergies and food allergies
  • Leaky gut syndrome
  • B12 deficiency
  • Gallstone risk – more than half the people with gallstones show decreased HCL secretion compared with gallstone-free patients
  • Diabetes – elevated blood sugar
  • Impaired tissue repair
  • Skin problems – eczema, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, vitiligo
  • Increased number of bacteria, yeasts, and parasites growing in the intestines
  • Lowered pancreatic secretion  – which contains the majority of enzymes that actively break down foods, which then further contributes to poor assimilation and nutritional problems
  • Heartburn and acid reflux  (commonly thought to be due to too much stomach acid and if there isn’t enough stomach acid the valve that closes the end of the esophagus at the stomach won’t close properly)
  • Ulcer formation – lack of protection from infectious agents such as H. Pylori
  • Rapid aging – HCL is necessary for restoring cellular methylation reserves  
  • Fermentation and putrifaction 
  • Reduced liver function 
  • Reduced oxidation of lactic acid
  • Reduced white blood cell activity
  • Retention of carbon dioxide
  • Bloating, belching, and flatulence immediately after meals
  • Indigestion – heavy feeling in the stomach
  • Candida
  • Upset stomach
  • Nausea

Simple Home Tests

There are home tests you can do to determine if you have sufficient HCL. Read the entire section before starting a test. If you already know that you have an ulcer stop here. Do not do any of the following tests.

If you have a stomach ache, try the lemon juice test first. If you do not have a stomach ache, or if your pain does not increase after the lemon juice test, then try the Betaine HCL test.

Lemon Juice Test

  • When you have stomach pain, take a tbsp. of lemon juice. If this makes the pain leave, you may have too little stomach acid, instead of not enough.   If it makes your symptoms worse, then you may have too much stomach acid.
  • Do you crave sour foods, such as citrus and sauerkraut? Do you like grapefruit juice? If you do, and they set well on your stomach, then you may have too little HCL. If you do not like acid foods, then you may have too much HCL.

If your pain increased after the lemon juice test above, do not do the HCL test below. You could have an ulcer or too much stomach acid. Again, do not take the following test if you have an ulcer.

Betaine HCL Test

  • Take one capsule of Betaine HCL before the last mouthful of a main meal (a complex meal that contains protein and fat, not with a simple meal of mostly carbohydrates, such as salad, soup, or fruit).
  • Burning or indigestion after taking one capsule means you have plenty of hydrochloric acid or you have a stomach ulcer – see note below. Don’t take any more.
  • If no burning occurs, proceed to next step to determine how much HCL you need.

Note: If you have a peptic ulcer, do not supplement with Betaine HCL or a digestive enzyme with pepsin or protease. You need to heal the ulcer first by finding the cause and rebuilding the mucosal barrier of the stomach. See Stomach Complex. After the ulcer is cleared up, then consider using the Betaine HCL to enhance digestion.

Determine Your Needed HCL Amount

Betaine hydrochloric acid is one of the most important supplements for improving digestion. However, if you are taking prescription medications consult with your physician, as Betaine hydrochloride supplements can cause adverse reactions in tandem with certain medications.

  • The strategy is to gradually increase the amount of Betaine HCL until you have too much acid in your stomach (burning sensation in the stomach), then back down slightly to the correct maintenance dose.
  • If no burning or indigestion was experienced with one HCL, then the next day take 2 capsules in the same way.
  • If still no burning or indigestion, take 3 tablets in the same way the next day. If still no burning or indigestion, then you need more HCL. Keep adding an additional capsule with each meal until you get heartburn or irritation.
  • On your next meal after irritation was achieved, take one capsule less than the amount that caused the irritation—this will be your maintenance dose.
  • Whenever you have a meal of mostly carbohydrates – no animal or dairy protein –take only one-third to half of your full dose.

Initially the goal is to supply the body with enough HCL to improve digestive function.  If digestive function is improved then nutrient uptake is better. If nutrient uptake is improved, then the body is more likely to increase its own production of HCL. The goal is to get your body to start producing more HCL so that you can reduce or stop taking HCL supplementation. (See “Ways to Increase Stomach Acid Production”) As your body’s normal acid production resumes, you will again experience the irritation that helped you identify the proper dose. When this irritation recurs, reduce your dose by one capsule with each meal until the irritation is no longer recurring.