The digestive process takes place as food passes through the gastrointestinal tract, which consists of the mouth, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Betaine hydrochloride (C5H12NO2Cl) is a source of hydrochloric acid, a naturally occurring stomach acid that helps break up fats and proteins for further digestion in the small intestine. Gastric (stomach) acid also aids in the absorption of nutrients through the walls of the intestines into the blood.
Gastric acid also helps protect the gastrointestinal tract from harmful bacteria. A normal level of gastric acid in the stomach—100,000-1,000,000 times more acidic than water—is sufficient to destroy bacteria, but a low level increases the likelihood and severity of certain bacterial and parasitic intestinal infections. One study showed that fasting people with normal gastric acid levels in the stomach had almost no bacteria in the small intestine, while individuals with low levels of hydrochloric acid had some bacterial colonization in the stomach.
Betaine hydrochloride is a synthesized chemical, and is not obtained from any plant or animal source. Gastric acid is produced by stomach cells, and is not available from any food source. Occasionally, betaine (C5H11NO2) is recommended to reduce blood levels of homocysteine, which is associated with heart disease. This form of betaine is different from betaine hydrochloride, and is available only with a doctor's prescription.
Some research suggests that individuals with a wide variety of chronic disorders, such as allergies, asthma, and gallstones, do not produce adequate amounts of stomach acid. Many people with rheumatoid arthritis are deficient in stomach acid and other digestive factors. Taking betaine hydrochloride with meals can aid in protein digestion and possibly reduce food sensitivities through improved digestion.
Naturopaths have long held that low stomach acid is a widespread problem that interferes with the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Betaine hydrochloride is one of the most common recommendations for this condition. It helps make some minerals and other nutrients more absorbable, and may be especially helpful with nutritional supplements, which are often taken in tablets or capsules that may not be easily digested.
Based on naturopathic theories about the importance of stomach acid, betaine hydrochloride has been recommended for a wide variety of problems, including anemia, asthma, atherosclerosis, diarrhea, excess candida yeast, food allergies, gallstones, hay fever and allergies, inner ear infections, rheumatoid arthritis, and thyroid conditions. Many naturopathic physicians also believe that betaine hydrochloride can help conditions such as ulcers, indigestion, and esophageal reflux (heartburn). Conventional treatment for those conditions involves reducing stomach acid; according to one theory, however, lack of stomach acid leads to incomplete digestion of proteins, which causes allergic reactions and other responses that lead to increased ulcer pain. In keeping with this theory, some doctors might recommend animal-derived pancreatic enzymes for patients experiencing allergic reactions to food. Vegetarians may wish to take betaine hydrochloride as an alternative to pancreatic enzymes, since it is not an animal product. Individuals suffering from allergies, ulcers, or heartburn should talk to their doctors before using betaine hydrochloride.
Betaine hydrochloride may be used as a lipotropic. Lipotropics aid in preventing the accumulation of fat in the liver, and usually help in the detoxification of metabolic wastes and toxins. They may be used to help with weight loss.
Benefits of lipotropics
- Detoxification of the waste byproducts of protein synthesis.
- Increasing resistance to disease by stimulating the thymus gland.
- Stepping up production of lecithin in the liver, which can lower cholesterol levels.
- Preventing plaque deposits in arteries.
- Preventing gallstone formation.
- Protecting against diabetic neuropathy, a condition in which the cranial and spinal nerves, as well as the nerves in the bladder and bowel, may be affected.
Betaine hydrochloride has been used as a source of hydrochloric acid in the treatment of hypochlorhydria, a condition in which an abnormally low amount of hydrochloric acid is in the stomach. It has been used in preparations for the treatment of liver disorders, hypokalaemia (abnormally low levels of potassium in the blood), CO2 production in double contrast radiography, and high homocysteine. Betaine hydrochloride has also been used to treat tic douloreux (a condition which involves spasmodic pain along the course of a facial nerve), cystinuria (a hereditary defect that results in recurrent kidney stone formation), and vitiligo (a condition that is characterized by milky-white patches on otherwise normal skin).
Betaine hydrochloride (also called betaine HCl) is typically taken in tablets or capsules of 5-10 grains (325-650 mg) each with a meal that contains protein. Naturopathic or nutritionally oriented physicians may make recommendations of such tablets based on their diagnoses.
People with a history of ulcers, heartburn, or other gastrointestinal symptoms should see a nutritionally oriented doctor before taking betaine hydrochloride, and no one should take more than 10 grains (650 mg) without a physician's recommendation. Large amounts of betaine hydrochloride can burn the lining of the stomach. If a burning sensation is experienced, betaine hydrochloride should be immediately discontinued.
Side effects are seldom seen, but betaine hydrochloride has not been through rigorous safety studies. Its safety, especially for young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with severe liver or kidney disease, is not known.
People taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), cortisone-like drugs, or other medications that could cause peptic ulcers should not take betaine hydrochloride.
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Gormley, James J. "Healthful weight loss includes L-carnitine, chromium, and lipotropics." Better Nutrition 58, no. 5: 40-41.
Personal Health Zone. "Betaine Hydrochloride." [cited December 2000]. <http://www.personalhealthzone.com/pg000106.html/>
GNC (General Nutrition Centers). [cited December 2000]. <http://www.gnc.com/wellness/natpharm/supp/betaine_HCl-F.htm/>
Melissa C. McDade