The pH of your stomach acid can vary due to health conditions, medications, and other factors. Having a pH that is too high or too low can cause complications.
Stomach acid, or gastric acid, is a watery, colorless fluid that’s produced by your stomach’s lining.
It’s highly acidic and helps break down food for easier digestion. This helps your body absorb nutrients more easily as food moves through your digestive tract.
In order to break down everything from meat to tough, fibrous plants, stomach acid has to be highly acidic.
Your body is designed to handle average levels of stomach acid so that it doesn’t cause you any illness or health complications.
However, those systems may not always work the way they are supposed to. Having gastric juices with low or high levels of acidity can cause other health problems.
Keep reading to find out how strong stomach acid is and what happens when your body makes stomach acid that’s either too strong or too weak.
Stomach acid does a lot on behalf of your body. It breaks down the foods you eat into easier-to-digest particles. It also acts as the first line of defense against pathogens and microbes that could make you sick.
These actions require a liquid that’s quite acidic. But just how acidic?
To really understand how strong stomach acid is, you’ll first need to understand how a liquid’s acid level is measured.
Acidity is measured on a pH scale, which ranges from 0 to 14. The lower the pH level, the stronger the fluid’s acidic levels. For example, battery acid has a pH of 0, which means it’s a very strong acid.
The least acidic fluids are at 14. These are called alkaline liquids. In the middle at 7 are neutral fluids, like pure water.
Stomach acid has a pH between 1 and 2, which makes it quite acidic.
Keep in mind that battery acid can dissolve materials like metal and bone. Stomach acid, with its pH balance being only one or two spots higher, can also damage very strong materials, like bones and teeth.
Stomach acid’s low pH level is largely due to hydrochloric acid (HCl).
However, there’s only a very small amount of HCl in stomach acid. Other components include potassium chloride (KCl) and sodium chloride (NaCl).
The cells lining your stomach wall secrete this acidic trio. The cells also release several enzymes and mucus.
This mucus is key to the process. It protects the lining of your stomach so that the acid and other gastric juices don’t damage the sensitive organ.
It’s common for your stomach acid’s pH level to fluctuate from time to time.
Certain situations, like medication and stress, can interfere with stomach acid. This may prevent your body from producing as much HCl.
Symptoms of low HCl levels
When this happens, you may begin to experience symptoms like:
But if your stomach acid is chronically low, you may have a condition called hypochlorhydria.
The complications of having chronically low levels of acid can be quite significant. The early stages of this condition can result in difficulties digesting food and absorbing the nutrients your body needs to function properly.
If left untreated, it can damage your gastrointestinal system. This increases your risk for infections and chronic health issues.
Treatment for low HCl levels
The exact treatment for low acid gastric juices will depend on the likely cause.
Your doctor may prescribe an HCl supplement. This can increase your stomach acid’s pH level. They may also prescribe medications with the enzyme pepsin, which helps increase stomach acidity.
Other treatments include:
- antibiotics to treat an underlying infection
- improved diet and increased supplements
- medication management
- stress reduction techniques
If the level of acid in your gastric juices is too high, the mucus in your stomach may stop being effective.
High stomach acid levels can lead to a number of complications, including:
- gastric ulcers
- acid reflux
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Symptoms of high HCl levels
The most obvious symptoms of high stomach acid levels include:
- nausea or vomiting
- abdominal discomfort that may worsen on an empty stomach
- decreased appetite
- unexplained weight loss
Treatment for high HCl levels
High stomach acid is most commonly treated with medication. Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) work to lower stomach acid. Your doctor may prescribe PPIs by themselves. Sometimes, PPIs are prescribed with other medications.
Other treatments will depend on the suspected cause of these high acid levels. These treatments may include:
- dietary changes
- surgery to remove tumors, part of the stomach (gastrectomy), or part of the vagus nerve (vagotomy)
A number of conditions, medications, and lifestyle factors can cause acid level fluctuations. While some fluctuations are unusual, not all are.
Chronically low or high levels of acid can be problematic for your health and well-being. Seeking treatment can prevent long-term complications.
Causes of low HCl levels
Certain conditions increase your risk for low acid levels. These risk factors include:
- having a premature birth
- being over 65
- having stomach surgery
- experiencing high levels of stress
- having nutrient deficiencies, especially zinc
- having an infection caused by H. pylori
- having a chronic illness
Causes of high HCl levels
Certain factors can increase your odds of having high stomach acid levels. These include:
- overproduction of certain hormones that are known to trigger stomach acid production
- rebound stomach acid production after stopping medications that lower stomach acid
- an H. pylori infection
- gastric outlet obstruction
- tumors, but only rarely
If you think you’re experiencing symptoms of either high or low levels of stomach acid, make an appointment to see your doctor.
More research on ways to help influence acid production without medication is needed. However, dietary and lifestyle changes may help those with high acid production, according to a
These changes can include:
- eating smaller meals throughout the day rather than large, calorie-dense meals
- avoiding lying down for 2 to 3 hours after eating and avoid eating 2 to 3 hours before bed
- avoiding wearing tight clothing that puts pressure on your stomach
- increasing the amount of fiber in your diet
- reducing the number of calories you eat per meal
- avoiding smoking, if you smoke
- following a Mediterranean diet
- chewing your food thoroughly
- staying hydrated in between meals
- maintaining a moderate weight
Stomach acid is a highly acidic liquid your body naturally produces to help you digest and absorb nutrients in food. Your body also produces enzymes and mucus to help protect itself against the acid’s strength.
High levels of stomach acid can lead to heartburn, acid reflux, and ulcers. Low levels of stomach acid may impair your ability to digest food.
Seek medical attention if you’re showing signs of low or high levels of acid. Both of these can be problematic if they’re chronic and not treated properly.
A healthcare professional can review your symptoms and decide the best treatment for you. In some cases, they may look for underlying health issues, like an infection, that could be contributing to your altered acid levels.